- Published on Tuesday, 14 March 2006 19:46
- Written by Lisa Trei - Stanford News Service
Contrary to a popular notion reported in news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 Gulf Coast disaster did not reveal to most Americans that widespread poverty and inequality are the nation's "dirty little secret."
Rather, most Americans were aware of these problems before they were highlighted by the devastation of Katrina, according to a new study by Stanford sociologists. As a result, the event did not become a watershed in the debate over poverty, as some pundits had forecast. In fact, awareness of poverty and inequality actually decreased among some groups of Americans after Katrina, suggesting that some people may have reacted negatively to news coverage by what they claimed to be a "liberally biased media," according to the study, "Did Katrina Recalibrate Attitudes Toward Poverty and Inequality? A Test of the 'Dirty Little Secret' Hypothesis."
The paper, co-authored by sociology Professor David Grusky and doctoral student Emily Ryo, will be published in the spring edition of the Du Bois Review. Lawrence Bobo, the Martin Luther King Jr. Centennial Professor, co-edits the 2-year-old, peer-reviewed journal on race in the social sciences. The forthcoming issue, which includes a paper by education Professor Emeritus John Baugh, is devoted to new research related to Katrina.
Grusky and Ryo based their findings on data from the 2004 and 2005 Maxwell Polls on Civic Engagement and Inequality based at Syracuse University. The nationally representative surveys, which included a comprehensive list of questions on poverty and inequality, were conducted in October 2004 and October 2005. Taking place just after Hurricane Katrina, the latter poll allowed the researchers to gauge how attitudes changed following the disaster.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, 70 percent of the U.S. adult population claims to have paid "very close attention" to news about Katrina, making it the fifth most closely watched story in the last 20 years.
"It follows that Katrina had the potential to recalibrate public ideologies in ways far more profound than, say, the release of yet another government report on inequality and poverty." Grusky and Ryo wrote in the study.
According to the researchers, journalists broached many themes in their coverage of the disaster, but a common one was that Katrina cast a fresh light on the depth and extent of poverty in America.
Ryo uncovered this popular theme during an online search of national and local newspaper and broadcast reporting on the disaster, which, she wrote, was summed up by a poverty expert quoted in Newsday Oct. 2: "There has been a pulling back of the veil that hides poverty in America. ... All of a sudden, people are saying, 'Do we really have that level of poverty here? Are there people really trying to hold families together with substandard education, living in substandard housing and with no financial resources to fall back on?'"
Ryo, a fourth-year graduate student, said that after Katrina she, too, had accepted the premise that Americans had been "completely unaware" of the size of these problems. "It's easy to buy into the story that if only we had known about the extent of poverty in America, we would have buckled down and taken care of it," she said.