Sensitive Media, Hurricane Harvey and Victim Blaming

Why didn’t residents evacuate Houston? With the heartbreaking news stories about the victims of Hurricane Harvey, media sensitivity is more important than ever. One example of ethical media kudos goes to the CNN crew who recently rescued a stranded family. Upon learning that the elderly mother had Alzheimer’s disease, CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera asked the cameras to stop rolling until he could assess her condition out of public view. SEE HERE

That was sensitive.

However, today there is a tsunami of public questioning and judgment about why there was no call to evacuate Houston, and why the victims themselves did not decide to leave in advance.

Let’s review victim-blaming. Most people are familiar with the term victim-blaming in the case of crime victims. Victim-blaming is “a devaluing act that occurs when the victims of a crime or an accident is held responsible – in whole or in part – for the crimes that have been committed against them” (Victim Blame, 2007). However, victims can also be blamed for not taking preventative or proper action before or during a natural disaster.

One reason we blame victims can be explained with a concept called ‘Belief in a Just World,’ also known as the ‘Just World Hypothesis’ (Correia, Vala & Aguiar, 2007). When an incomprehensible injustice or traumatic experience occurs, some people feel compassion and are motivated to exhibit prosocial behavior (I call these people Compassionates), while others exhibit apathy or disdain towards the victims (the Judgers). This is especially true for victims who are perceived to have been able to make different decisions.

“If you chose to stay in your home during a hurricane,
I don’t feel sorry for you.”

Lerner (1980) explains that some people distance themselves from the suffering of others because they believe that “the world is just,” or that people get what they deserve. For example, instead of helping a homeless woman with a sign begging for food, people assume that she is homeless and hungry because she did something to deserve her current situation. Therefore, they neither help the woman nor feel bad about ignoring the woman’s pleas. The Just World Hypothesis explains that the Judgers are driven to eliminate threats to their need to believe in a just and predictable world. This helps them to feel assured that a similar fate would never happen to them.

“I would have evacuated the minute I heard a hurricane was coming.
I would not have made the decisions those people made.”

Interestingly, the more similar the members of the public are to victims of an undeserved misfortune or tragedy, the more likely compassion and helping behavior will emerge from the public. It is easy to be a Compassionate as long as blaming the victim is not intuitive, as in the case of senseless violence like terrorism, or unwittingly get caught up in a natural disaster. However, if there is any possibility for blame, the Judgers tend to zone in on what the victims did wrong.  Interestingly, studies show that the Judgers are the most judgmental towards the victims with whom they most identify. The more similar they are to the victims, the more The Judgers will stress their differences from the victims, including proclamations of how flawed the victims were in their decision-making. Keeping this distance between a Judger and a victim enables the Judgers to maintain their belief that the world is just, and because they are superior in their thinking, they will not likely become a victim in the same way.

Another concept to understand is ‘psychological distancing.’ Psychological distancing helps the Judgers feel indifferent to the suffering of the victims, enabling them to troll and to justify cruel, blaming comments in social media (Lerner & Miller, 1978; Hafer & Bègue, 2005; van Zomeren & Lodewijkx, 2005).

Although natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey do not generally provoke much victim-blaming, even a little is too much. There is currently a call for questioning the governor and local leaders (who are also impacted by this crisis) for not issuing evacuations orders. Thankfully, media outlets have been ethical enough to cover both the concerns as well as Houston mayor Sylvester Turner’s defense of his decision to not issue evacuation orders. He cited the disastrous evacuation efforts before Hurricane Rita that resulted in gridlocked traffic during a deadly flood, and dozens of deaths. Turner and other leaders worried that trapping millions of people in cars would have only increased the victimization. SEE HERE

Let’s all follow the example of Ed Lavendera and instead of being Judgers, let’s be Compassionates, and just jump in to help.


  • Correia, I., Vala, J., & Aguiar, P. (2007). Victim’s innocence, social categorization and the threat to the belief in a just world. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 43(1), 31-38. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2005.12.010
  • Hafer, C. L., & Bègue, L. (2005). Experimental research on just-world theory: Problems, developments, and future challenges. Psychological Bulletin, 131(1), 128-167. doi:
  • Lerner, M.J. (1980). The belief in a just world: A fundamental delusion. (New York, NY: Plenum Press.
  • van Zomeren, M., & Lodewijkx, H. F. M. (2005). Motivated responses to ‘senseless’ violence: Explaining emotional and behavioural responses through person and position identification. European Journal of Social Psychology, 35(6), 755-766. doi:10.1002/ejsp.274
  • “Victim Blame.” (2007). Retrieved from

5 thoughts on “Sensitive Media, Hurricane Harvey and Victim Blaming”

  1. Let’s not give CNN too much credit. Shortly before the incident you mention, the reporter was on air on dry ground asking rescue boats for rides and saying that they told him they needed the space for people actually stuck in the water rather than TV cameras. Then moments later, he’s on a boat playing hero. The issue isn’t that CNN cut off the broadcast out of sensitivity for the victims, it’s that their reporter should not have been complicating rescues by taking up space that actual victims needed.

  2. If they choose to stay that I feel like it’s their fault. People should help the ones that want help to leave get out. Then they should give the other people another chance to leave and if they don’t then they have only to blame themselves..
    My heart goes out to all these people and the little children & the animals and I hope they’re safe and sound and things can get back to normal as soon as possible God help them all..

  3. It is very sad, any time a victim is blamed. I agree that the media perpetrates this mindset. There are too many variables involved; the $ someone may have to leave; their own personal conviction and on and on. I don’t watch mainstream media and adamantly encourage people to disconnect from it and financially cripple it. It is doing nothing but swaying minds, telling lies and keeping fear alive. We are creating our OWN “news” channels where victims are celebrated for their victories and strength, not beat down.

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