Natural / Disaster: Differential Media Portrayals of Wildfire Displacement and Homelessness in Portland, Oregon

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Cultural Studies-Critical Methodologies

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The devastating 2020 wildfires in Oregon provide an opportunity to revisit the “discursive creation of homelessness” first identified by Céline Pascale in this journal in 2005. Drawing on physical observation of the unfolding event and discursive analysis of media reporting (print, radio, and television), we find radically different media coverage of people unhoused by wildfires and those previously unhoused but also affected by the fires. Journalistic uses of nomenclature and reported speech, portrayals of agency, and exclusion of marginalized voices provide current examples of the stratification of deservedness. The wildfires, deemed a natural disaster but simultaneously an “unnatural” cause of houselessness, reinforced the differential material treatment of “evacuees” as a special category deserving of aid and support in contrast to people living unhoused before the wildfires. Yet this reasoning ignores the temporal dimensions of displacement and lack of housing, which independent of their causes produce compounding and tangible socio-economic and physical effects on those affected. We argue that as climate change-related disasters such as wildfires displace more people in Oregon and across the United States, the origins of houselessness will be less meaningful while societal response and compassion will matter more.


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