September 01, 2005

Finding vs. looting

I definitely don't think Bill's use of exotic makes him a racist, under any reasonable definition of either "exotic" or "racist". If you want see a better (and very topical) example of racism probably governing word choice, check out this juxtaposition of photos and captions from New Orleans.


Update, 9/2/2005. Not too surprisingly, several people have written in response to this post. I address here what each of these folks had to say in the order they wrote to me.

I first heard from Melissa Fox:

Man, that's harsh. (I notice that one is AP and one is AFP, so I take a very very very small bit of solace in the idea that it's not likely the same writer responsible for both captions.)

Three of the four folks who have written so far make this point, as you'll see below. I did notice this before I posted the link, and (perhaps wrongly) figured that this was rather obvious. It's true that the juxtaposed web-clippings are identically formatted -- they are both clipped from Yahoo! News -- but I think it is much clearer what their respective sources are (big AP and AFP logos above the captions) than it is that they were republished on Yahoo! News (very small-type mention, practically cut off the clipping, at the bottom of each).

I agree with Melissa about taking only "a very very very small bit of solace" from this fact. My point was not to point the finger at Yahoo! News or at any organization in particular (or to accuse anyone of malicious intent, as someone else suggests below); my personal interest is in the evidence of systemic racism, which I think is very well demonstrated by the photos/captions.

Melissa continues:

Possibly-interesting side note: I've been seeing the AP photo of the black kid in the water in the Washington Post in photo arrays over the past couple days, where the caption says he's wading through chest-deep water after 'exiting' a grocery store.

(follow-up in a later message ...)

(Just double checked it) -- it's not possible to link directly to pictures at the Washington Post, but from the front page ( - though this requires harmless spam-free registration), if you click on "The Latest on New Orleans Exodus" and then choose the "Aftermath" tab, it's #14 in that album: "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after exiting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday." Photo by Dave Martin of AP, black kid in a yellow shirt with a case of soda under one arm and towing a trash bag -- same shot, right?

Yes, it is. When I found the picture today, the link from the main page is labelled "Despair Amid the Ruins", but the rest is as Melissa describes it.

Next, a correspondent who has not yet responded to give me permission to cite them explicitly wrote:

Yahoo News republishes wire reports verbatim, and the two photographs you show came from two different news agencies.

This is the same point made by Melissa, as noted above.

Racism is a plausible explanation for the difference in captions; on the other hand, so is only one of the photographers witnessing the act, so I'd like to know how you determined the former to be more probable.

It's not calling the black person a looter that bothered me; it's choosing not to call the white people looters, but to say that they "found" the stuff they had instead. I don't immediately see how the "witnessing the act" explanation would account for this.

Here are the AFP's waders and some more "Looters":

Hey, those people are all... in front of a store!

Follow the first link, and you'll note that the "photo was removed from Yahoo! News at the request of AFP" and that there's a link to a "Yahoo! News statement on photo language controversy."

I don't know what to say about the correspondent's rhetorical comment on the second photo/caption. Again, my problem is not specifically with the choice of the word "looters", but with the distinction between "looting" and "finding", as the title of my post says explicitly, and with the fact that the former is attributed to blacks and the latter to whites.

Finally, this same correspondent provides contrast between two AP photos/captions on Yahoo! News (ignoring the "[i]f it's racism you want" quip):

If it's racism you want, the contrast between these AP photos is more convincing:

The first photo/caption is the original "looter" (again, with a link to the Yahoo! News statement on photo language controversy) and the second is a shot of a white person "look[ing] through their shopping bag" and a black person "jump[ing] through a broken window" outside a convenience store, and neither of them is called a "looter".

Is this a better contrast than the original, though? They both originate with AP, but it's entirely possible that they came from different photographers/caption writers. I can easily imagine having posted a link to a juxtaposition of these two photos and having someone write to me making this (to me, completely irrelevant) point.

Chris at Mixing Memory writes to point out something similar to what Melissa noted about the Washington Post's caption of the same "looter" picture, but this time about CNN:

Hi, I read your post on "finding" vs. "looting." I was amazed at the language, as well. Racism is rarely that overt, though it pervades the media and popular culture all the same. Anyway, I thought I'd note that CNN, which picked up the photo of the young black man carrying groceries from the AP, took the word "looting" out. Their caption simply reads, "A young man drags groceries through chest-deep water in New Orleans on Tuesday." I was happy that at least one major news organization avoided explicitly racist portrayals.

CNN's pictures are here: (scroll down to "Related," and click on the "After Katrina" gallery).

Finally, another correspondent who has yet to give me permission to cite them explicitly writes to point out the fact that the photos and captions are from different sources:

I saw your recent posting on the excellent Language Log in which you commented on the finding vs. looting graphic that's been making its rounds over the past couple of days.

It *is* an interesting observation, and one worth drawing attention to, but it should also be qualified that the two stories are from two different news agencies (one is AP, one is AFP), and thus it's possible that the language chosen has as more to do with individual reporters or editors writing style than with any prejudicial agenda.

I do think it's important to be on the lookout for discriminatory bias in language (which often is subtle in its expression); I also think one should be wary of exaggerating cases where there's inconclusive evidence of malicious intent.

Again, I wasn't accusing anyone of malicious intent. Unfortunately, this is the real problem with discussions about racism: pointing out probable evidence of systemic racism in society is confused with an accusation of intentional racism by an individual (or well-defined group).


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Posted by Eric Bakovic at September 1, 2005 04:00 PM