Why did media ignore flooding in Louisiana?

While parts of Louisiana became literal islands, much of the country was cutoff from the story by scant media coverage.

Reporters are lining beaches along the Florida panhandle this morning, making sure their mics pick up as much wind as possible as Tropical Storm Hermine approaches. It’s the top story on every morning news program – the journalistic convention for landfalling tropical systems (what do I mean? I wrote this lead last night, then confirmed with a quick flip through the channels over breakfast).

A few hundred miles west, Louisiana is still recovering. Some areas only recently arose from the flood waters that first submerged them three weeks ago. Personal possessions line streets in garbage heaps. Many schools are still closed.

The scope is staggering. Over 100,000 homes flooded in and around Baton Rouge and Lafayette; 13 people killed. When the waters crested, many small towns had become islands, separated from hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores.

I know this largely because of family and friends on Facebook. From the outset, locals accused media of ignoring the story. We have to be careful about this – Southerners can be thin-skinned about perceived attacks from “the mainstream media,” including those greatly distorted or possibly fabricated.

[Related: Did ESPN Commentators Call Mississippians Poor?]

But I had to admit, I wasn’t seeing much coverage either. And eventually, the media turned a critical eye on itself. The New York Times waited three days to move their staff writer in New Orleans to the scene of the devastation 75 miles away. Public Editor Liz Spayd lamented the paper’s aggregation of media reports instead of conducting original reporting, concluding that “A news organization like The Times – rich with resources and eager to proclaim its national prominence – surely can find a way to cover a storm that has ravaged such a wide stretch of the country’s Gulf Coast.”

Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather took to Facebook to blame television news for choosing “the easy ratings of pundits playing the schadenfreude game in air conditioned studios” over sending reporters and resources to the flood zone.

I don’t have empirical data to analyze the amount and prominence of coverage compared to other natural disasters (though it’d be a fun study; anyone want to help?). For now, I’m relying on anecdotal evidence and observations of those in the industry. And that tells me the flooding in Louisiana was, and continues to be, drastically underreported.


To try to begin answering that question, I did my usual media scanning, and asked two meteorologists to help me fill in the gaps.

Continue reading “Why did media ignore flooding in Louisiana?”


Katrina 10: Our world changed and brought us closer together (among other stories)

Ten years ago, we came together.


I am a weather nerd. As a kid, I pretended I was covering severe weather from my bedroom (and sometimes the front yard in the middle of a monsoon). I learned about latitude and longitude tracking hurricanes, copying coordinates from The Weather Channel onto a photocopied map. In elementary school, I visited not one, but two of the local television meteorologists.

Storms frightened me and yet I was drawn to them. I swear I was destined to be a weatherman until I discovered how many calculus courses they have to take (College Algebra put a strain on this brain).

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season remains the most active on record, with 28 tropical storms – so many that the list of names was exhausted, leading to six storms named for Greek letters, including one forming in December and another in January of 2006 – the latest on record. There were 15 hurricanes, 7 major hurricanes (Category Three or greater), and 4 Category Five hurricanes… all records. The strongest hurricane that season was also the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic (and, no, it’s not the one you are thinking).

The first forecast models for Katrina predicted a weak hurricane brushing the Florida coast and turning off into the Atlantic. Instead, Katrina went through the peninsula and into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And when it finally did make its northern turn, it was toward the Gulf Coast.

Continue reading “Katrina 10: Our world changed and brought us closer together (among other stories)”

(Some of) What we learned through a health intervention program for elementary school children

aejmc15Papers presented August 7, 2015 at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, San Francisco, Calif. Information about accessing specific papers available by visiting the Academia page on dylanmclemore.com.

Recently, researchers with the University of Alabama Health Communication Lab spent two weeks with second- and third-grade children at a racially diverse public elementary school. We conducted a health intervention, leading physical education activities, talking about health and nutrition, and using new technologies to encourage physical activity and healthy diets. These are a portion of those findings:

Media Effect on Children’s Health

Media use is a popular target of blame for childhood health problems, particularly obesity. It is widely assumed that media use limits exercise by increasing sedentary activity, though most studies find that media simply displaces other types of sedentary activity. A second proposed media effect is that media content (especially advertising) teaches unhealthy attitudes and behaviors regarding nutrition. And while content analyses of children’s television programming find enough sugary snacks to rot your teeth, it’s less clear how effective those messages are at influencing children.

We asked children in our health intervention to report how often they consumed various media (not just television – a limitation of many prior studies). Turns out, pre-existing media use did not significantly moderate intervention effects on attitudes or knowledge. Perhaps more surprising, media use did not affect baseline values before the intervention. In other words, whether children were glued to their screens or were playing outside, what they knew and how they felt about exercising and eating healthy was roughly the same.

Existing studies largely emanate from medical disciplines, where many of the measures are behavioral or biological, and assume a powerful media effects paradigm that has been disputed for over 50 years. This study, grounded in communication theory, rebuffs the century-old powerful media effects paradigm and suggests that media influence on the formation of children’s knowledge and attitudes is less evident.

Active Video Games

As part of the physical education intervention, children took a break from real-life play to engage in active video game play. Using a series of sports training games for the Wii, we measured children’s heart-rate, as well as self-reports of enjoyment and exertion. One of the papers to come out of the Wii sessions focused on the efficacy of active video games as a physical activity option for African American children. African American children are typically less physically active than White children. Two causes were particular relevant to the present study – negative attitudes toward physical activity and limited access to quality places for such activity.

We found that the Wii games each resulted in increases in heart rate mimicking that of real-life physical activity. This was true regardless of gender or weight status. Even better, children enjoyed playing the games, and reported desire to continue to play. However, real-world play could not be disregarded. For at least one game – a basketball drill – perceived efficacy at real basketball predicted enjoyment of the simulated game. The results suggest that active video games might provide alternative physical activity spaces that are enjoyed and desired by African American children.

Tablet-Sized Portions

Children used an iPad app designed by the researchers to keep track of the foods they ate at each meal. Compared to pre-intervention measures, children’s nutritional knowledge significantly improved as they thought about the types and portions of food they ate. The results suggest that the interactivity offered by touch technologies may make for an accessible, appealing way to not only present nutrition information to children, but to engage them with it.

Taken together, we learned that the various unhealthy messages in media may not be as impactful as widely believed. However, interactive media offer viable routes to engaging children in exercise and learning about nutrition.

AFA pours cold water on Ice Bucket Challenge

^^ Nifty headline, right? I thought so anyway. And maybe it would have served the American Family Association well to use it on a recent release urging people to think twice before donating to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association as part of the popular Ice Bucket Challenge.

Instead, they went with this…



I guess it has its own charm.

AFA is firmly on the religious right, boycotting companies that promote products to the LGBT community and choose the term “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.” But this particular message seemed to bother even supporters of the group – not because of its position, but because of the manner in which it was communicated.

I’ve been meaning to blog about the shift in headline writing to SEO and viral social sharing. For now, let me just direct you to a feature in the Columbia Journalism Review, though you probably don’t need to click to know exactly what I’m talking about.

“ALS challenge kills babies” is about as tabloid-esque as it gets… the good old-fashioned form of clickbait. The actual argument of the AFA and similar groups is that the ALSA’s use of embryonic stem cells for research violates the sanctity of life.

This is not a blog post to debate the merits of that argument.

Instead, it’s one to think about why even those who agree with that argument cringed at the way it was presented.

Continue reading “AFA pours cold water on Ice Bucket Challenge”

Getting goats for Christmas (Or, how a disillusioned shopper found his joy)

I hate Christmas shopping. Not because I’m bitterly opposed to the commercialization of the holidays. Not because I can’t fight for a bargain (one infamous Black Friday, I bobbed and weaved through a crowd at a now-defunct electronics store to physically lie atop a row of desktop computer boxes my dad needed for his office). In fact, I love surprising my loved ones with gifts that I know they’ll enjoy.

It’s just that sometimes those gifts are awful hard to find. Maybe I’m just not creative enough. Maybe I don’t have the gift of gifting. My aunt can find everyone in the family the perfect gift every single time, despite only talking to us a handful of times each year. Meanwhile, I’ve never known what to get her. A candle that smells like the ocean? Socks with jingle bells? A toaster?

When you don’t know what to get, hunting for gifts is painstaking, and usually fruitless. It was even worse for me when I lived in Arkansas and the nearest shopping destinations were over an hour away. So, one Christmas, I dug into the family traditions and revived something a fellow displaced relative began some seasons ago. In lieu of the perfect gift, I made a charitable donation in honor of that family member.

Continue reading “Getting goats for Christmas (Or, how a disillusioned shopper found his joy)”

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