Media Coverage of Natural Disasters: Pentadic Cartography and the Case of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi

Kevin R. McClure


This essay employs pentadic cartography in an analysis of media coverage of natural disaster with particular attention to the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi.  It begins with a review of pentadic cartography.  Next, the survey reports of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are coupled with a synoptic pentadic analysis informed by scholarship from the disaster research field.  A detailed pentadic analysis of 48 Hours:  Flood Sweat and Tears (CNS 1993) follows.  The critical discussion argues that Flood, Sweat and Tears is representative of media coverage that overstresses physical destruction and human suffering in natural disasters, while constructing a symbolic landscape in which disasters are, implicitly and explicitly, presented as “random acts of nature.”  Through these analytical comparisons, I argue that media coverage of natural disasters functions to “close the universe of discourse,” contributing to a technological vocabulary of motives that tends to screen out the politics of disasters and disaster management policies.

IN THE CULTURE OF CALAMITY (2007), Rozario explains that major natural disasters have long “gripped the public imagination, challenging and transforming ideas of nature, religion, social organization, and public policy, while inspiring intense deliberation about the meaning of America and of life itself” (p. 12).  In his exploration of the symbiotic relationship between the project of modernity and disasters, he details the importance of “disasters to modern thought and activity” and reveals that calamities “generate an extraordinary amount of cultural production” (p. 14).  Disasters disrupt the daily routines and the putative stability of everyday life and call into question our constructions and understandings of reality and our relationships with the social and natural world (Alexander, 2005a, 2005b; and Hewitt, 1995).  In other words, natural disasters create raptures and “ambiguities” in our symbolic universe, challenging the veracity of our terms as “faithful reflections of reality” (Burke, 1969, p. 59).  Moreover, extreme natural disasters are linked to the inner workings of industrial-technological society and the society’s culpability due to factors such as race and class, failure to mitigate, growth and development, capitalism, and perhaps, the limits of modernity itself.1  This essay advances a theoretical and critical rhetorical engagement with elements of this extraordinary cultural production by exploring how the media respond to and construct meanings out of the chaotic events and situations brought about by natural disasters.2

The 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi was the worst flood in U.S. history, lasting from June to September.  Like the disasters of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami (2011), the Haitian earthquake (2010), and Hurricane Katrina (2005), the 1993 flood had powerful impacts materially, economically, psychologically, politically, and sociologically.3 These extreme events reveal that disasters are exigent issues that provoke complex fields of rhetoric, which ripple across the broad discursive “spaces” of culture, including the institutional domains of civil society, politics, science, technology, media, and religion. While the case of the 1993 flood of the Mississippi, specifically CBS News’ 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears that aired on July 14, 1993, serves as the “representative anecdote”4 of this essay, the critical analysis includes media coverage from other notable natural disasters.5  Given the range of rhetorical phenomena associated with the rhetoric of disaster, Anderson and Prelli’s (2001) pentadic cartography is appropriate because of its methodological flexibility for critically engaging discourses at both a macro-level and a micro-level.6 Burke’s pentad, as Anderson and Prelli (2001) explicate, “can be used as a cartographic device for mapping the universe of discourse, charting the terminological network of often implicit assumptions and relationships that serve to close or open discursive interactions” (p. 80). 

I begin with a review of pentadic cartography. Next, the survey reports of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi taken from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) are coupled with a synoptic (or global) pentadic analysis informed by scholarship from the disaster research field that serves as the baseline for the symbolic terrain of the 1993 flood. A detailed pentadic analysisof 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears (CBS, 1993) follows.  I conclude with critical discussion, arguing that Flood, Sweat, and Tears is representative of mediacoverage that overstresses the physical destruction and human suffering of disasters, while rhetorically constructing a symbolic landscape in which disasters are, implicitly and explicitly, presented as “random acts of nature.”7 In so doing, media coverage of natural disasters functions to “close the universe of discourse,” contributing to a terminological vocabulary of motives that constrains thoughts and discourses that deflects attention away from the politics of disaster and long term disaster management policies. The main objective is to provide the foundation for further critical engagements with the rhetorics of disaster.

Pentadic Cartography

Anderson and Prelli’s (2001) pentadic cartography extends Burke’s pentad.8 The pentad is Burke’s method of accounting for the rhetorical construction and advocacy of "realities" and for tracking motivations and attitudes in language.9 Pentadic cartography provides a critical methodology that affords both a synoptic perspective for the global mapping of the rhetoric of disaster and a more detailed interpretation of the specific terminological vocabularies via large-scaled mapping10  In their discussion of mapping symbolic terrain, Anderson and Prelli note that “[P]entadic cartographers operate in ways that parallel empirical map makers . . .  and produce pentadic maps, which are symbolic models that give a synoptic perspective from which critics can talk about the many ways that humans have talked about things” (p. 83).  Extending the analogy of empirical mapping, they point out that maps can operate at different scales: “Critics could track the dominate vocabulary of motives within an entire social order and, thus, yield a relatively global, or small scaled, interpretation; or they could map terminological implications within a single speech, or poem, or play, and generate a more detailed, or larger scaled, interpretation” (p. 83). 

Pentadic cartography has all of the advantages of Burke’s formulation of the pentad while emphasizing a critical focus on the verbal and visual rhetorics associated with the inner workings of advanced technological society.  More critically important, then, is that Anderson and Prelli employ Burke’s pentad as a means “for charting the ways that terminologies function to open or close the universe of discourse” by rhetorically mapping the “observable linguistic structures” of verbal terrain and visual messages (p. 74). “The cartographer of motives must locate the featured term that coordinates transformation of one vocabulary into the terms of another at pivotal sites of ambiguity” (p. 80).  The critic’s task, they argue, is to function as an agent of “demystification” to reveal how “‘legitimate’ perspectives are reduced . . . to the terms of a single technological system of thought” and to “reopen that closed system” of thought via the “construction of an alternative vocabulary to those privileged in the technological society” (p. 73).

In their discussion of the universe of discourse, Anderson and Prelli (2001) note that a broad range of social, political, and philosophical thinkers have argued that “advanced industrial society is so pervaded with a technological rationality that it fosters a closed universe of thought and discourse that stifles and silences all other points of view” (p. 73).  Informed by Burke’s discussion of terminological psychoses,11 as a “tendency to . . . see everything in terms of . . . a particular recipe of overstressings and understressings peculiar to [an] institutional structure,” and that the “technological psychosis” emerges as “supreme” among these psychoses, Anderson and Prelli’s critical method underscores the ways in which the contemporary closed universe of discourse “reduces all terminologies to the terms of agency or of scene” (p. 81).  Like Burke, Anderson and Prelli argue that in the technological society the “ultimate terms of . . . discourse are associated with scene or agency” (pp. 78-81). 

Every vocabulary is limiting, in that it selects particular terms that provide a way of seeing or thinking. With regard to matter and motion, the terminologies associated with scene instill totally mechanical meanings, lacking spontaneity and purpose.12 “The scene then acts as a ‘container’ for the agent and act. . . .  The industrial-technological scene reduces act, agent, and purpose to external conditions, through its own mechanical terms” (p. 81).  As Burke (1969) explains, scene corresponds with the philosophy of materialism, which “regards all the facts of the universe as explainable in terms of matter and motion” (p. 131).  The discourses of the sciences are the contemporary archetypeof scenic discourse. In contrast, agency corresponds with a philosophy of pragmatism and a vocabulary that reduces “people, actions, places and purposes in terms of, or from the standpoint of, instruments or means” (Anderson and Prelli, p. 81).13 Exemplars of agency are found in the areas of the applied sciences, engineering, and technology (Burke, 1969, p. 286), which reduce “the language of action . . . ultimately to terms of motion” (Anderson and Prelli, p. 81).14  Both the vocabularies of scene and agency are complementary to each other as they reduce the universe of discourse to mechanical terms that narrow “the terms of deliberation to terms of motion” and “circumference of motivations associated with motion [they] are inappropriate for political and social discourse” (p. 81).  Vocabularies of scene and agency mask motivations associated with acts, agents, and purposes.15

The following synoptic pentadic analysis of the survey reports from NOAA and the USACE serves as the baseline for the symbolic terrain of the 1993 flood. 

The Great Flood of 1993: A Synoptic Analysis

According to the reports by the USACE and NOAA, the 1993 flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers resulted in the death of fifty people and caused about $20 billion in damage. The flood was distinctive from other floods in terms of its magnitude, severity, damage, and the season  in which it occurred—all summer. Flooding and water levels above the flood stage continued through the middle of September in many regions along the Mississippi River. At Hannibal, Mo., the Mississippi River remained above flood stage for more than six months, while portions of the Missouri River were above flood stage for several months (USACE, 1993).

At St. Louis, near the convergence of the Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers, all of which were in flood at the same time, the first spring flooding on the Mississippi River began on April 8.  The Mississippi rose above flood stage again on April 11 and stayed above flood stage until May 24.  Then, on June 27, the Mississippi went above flood stage again and did not drop below flood stage until October 7.  The Mississippi River was above the old record flood stage for more than three weeks at St. Louis, from mid-July to mid-August (NOAA, 2003).  During July, Iowa became the focus of attention when flooding overwhelmed Ames and Des Moines. The state of Iowa was declared a disaster area, as  well as portions of eight other states: North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas (NOAA, 2003).  According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “40 of 229 federal levees and 1,043 of 1,347 non-federal levees were over-topped or damaged” (USACE, 2003).  The national disaster survey report of the NOAA (1996) describes the flood of 1993 as “an unprecedented hydro meteorological event since the United States started to provide weather services in the mid-1800s.”16 When floodwaters finally receded in October, the flood had saturated an estimated 20 million acres in nine states.

This description by NOAA and the USACE transforms nature (scene) into a geophysical agent.  The account, then, constructs the natural events as scene-agency, with the disruptions of the Midwest scene explained in terms of the motions of the Mississippi River and the rains that function as natural agencies (scenic-motions).  An important feature of this terminology is that scenic terms dominate as an orientation omitting acts, agents, and purpose. The pivotal terms of this description transform the events into “an unprecedented hydro meteorological event,” and thus, into a random act of nature, with no further explanation.

Hewitt (1995) describes this way of envisioning natural disasters as the technological or physical hazards view.  This conception, he notes, is “the most common vision of disasters, even in the work of social scientists” (p. 319).  Steinberg (2006) argues that this view, “understood by scientists, the media, and technocrats as primarily accidents—unexpected, unpredictable happenings that are the price of doing business on this planet,” constructs disasters as “random acts of nature” (p. xxi).17 A number of scholars in the disaster research field contest the adequacy of the “random act of nature” view and eschew its impact on public policy.18 When natural disasters are “seen as freak events cut off from people’s everyday interactions with the environment,” the events “are positioned outside the moral compass of our culture,” and thus, “no one can be held accountable for them” (p. xxi).  The political import of the “random act of nature” view is that it constrains our understandings of socio-political and socio-economic factors and the interplay of human agents and agency as factors in the production of disaster risks. As Steinberg explains, “natural calamities frequently do not just happen; they are produced through a chain of human choices and natural occurrences” (p. xxi).  

The 1993 flood is distinctive given that the Mississippi River is a product of a long-standing attempt to engineer the river to suit the needs of a contemporary capitalist economy.  In fact, the Mississippi River has been shaped by the industrial-technological agencies of the modern world ever since Congress authorized the Mississippi River Commission in 1879 for the construction of a levee system to prevent the annual flooding along the waterway, which connects the industrial centers and agricultural heartland of the Midwest with the Gulf Coast. In 1927, the levee system famously blocked the river from its floodplains and led to even greater flooding when the levees failed. The 1927 flood was one of the worst disasters in American history and a turning point in the implementation of modern disaster relief after intense media coverage “encouraged the public to invest emotionally in the flood and to demand that politicians do whatever they could to help the victims” (Rozario, p. 146).  Indicative of the technological psychosis, the problem was not seen as a failure in engineering but a defective program. “The levee-only policy had failed” so “the only solution was a new system that included controlled spillways” (Rozario, p. 149). The new system represented an expensive and massive long-term Federal commitment to further re-engineer the river that was accompanied by the commercial development of floodplains, the destruction of wetlands, and the striping of forest cover, ultimately tended to serve entrenched socio-political and socio-economic class interests of the economy.19 When the 1993 flood struck, like Hurricane Katrina, it was the prototype of a disaster where “modern disaster policy . . . was the mother of disaster” (p. 146).

But this is not the lesson to be drawn from the reports of NOAA and USACE. Rather, the terms used to describe the 1993 flood above, map a symbolic terrain that is wide in scope but narrow in circumference. This description decontextualizes the scene as a product of the industrial-technology agencies of modernity and understresses the meaning of these events for agents and public policies insofar as it lacks any significant consideration of socio-economic and socio-political factors that contribute to such events.   Pentadically, this description complements the technical idiom of the “purely” scientific discourses that formulate a scene-agency ratio. The idiom of science is one of pure motion as in the example of hydrologists who explain the 1993 flood in terms of rainfall amounts (agency) and ground saturation models that led to the flooding in the Midwest scene (Changnon, 1996). Scientific discourses can also mask issues of human agency that may play a more direct role in disasters.

The flood that disrupted and shattered the social fabric of people and communities was far more rhetorically complex and ambiguous than the events described in the calculable terms above . Indeed, the people directly affected by this tremendous flood likely found little comfort in knowing that it was an “unprecedented occurrence.” As local and national media covered the story throughout the entire flood, there were, of course, a number of rhetorical responses to the events, including official government statements20 and religious interpretations.21  Prior to Hurricane Katrina, no other natural disaster in U.S. history received so much media coverage or directly touched so many lives for so long as the 1993 flood (USACE, 1993). 

In what terms and terminology, then, did media coverage present the events of this natural disaster? Did these terms also “narrow the circumference” of the public’s understandings of the disaster? And if so, does a narrowing of terms and terminology in the media have an analogue in public policy toward natural disasters?

Flood, Sweat and Tears: A Detailed Pentadic Analysis

Although the description of events above excludes any meaningful consideration of the impacts of the disasters upon individuals, the seemingly “arbitrary” impact of scenic motion upon agents is a primary concern for the media.  For the mainstream visual and print media, natural disasters “are ideal subjects” insofar as the media “seeks the dramatic, emotionally-charged, even the catastrophic to capture audience attention” (Fry, 2004, p. 721).22  This is certainly the case in the July 14th episode of 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat, and Tears (CBS, 1993) that was broadcast live fromDes Moines, Iowa during some of the worst flooding.23  The episode, hosted by Dan Rather, was devoted to the 1993 Mississippi flood and the heat wave that was hitting the South and East. 

The episode opens with a medium shot of the Mississippi River flowing while dramatic music plays in the background.  As the camera shot pulls back to a wider view, it reveals that the river is in complete flood, with houses, roads, and bridges clearly inundated. As the music crescendos, Dan Rather’s voice narrates, “Tonight on 48 hours.” The next shot is footage of people reinforcing a levee with sandbags, with the voiceover of another man: “We got people fighting this thing like you wouldn’t believe.” The shot then turns to a specific house surrounded by sandbags with water rising on one side of the sandbags; Rather continues in voiceover, “fighting a flood.” The shot then turns to Mrs. Kim Camp as she notes, “this is where we started laying up our sandbag, April 16th.” Rather voices, “and standing firm.” 

As the introduction continues, it shifts to a man in an urban location who complains, “the heat, it’s too much.” Rather, in voiceover, comments “It’s hell . . .” A meteorologist in voiceover adds, “It’s a hundred and twenty in the shade.”  The next shot is of a paramedic administering aid to a person in distress, remarking that “his body feels hot.” The shot cuts quickly back to the flooding  Rather, still in voiceover, saying, “and high water.”  As Rather’s voiceover continues, “America’s summer of flood, sweat and tears,” the footage is of medical service workers, children playing in the water from a fire hydrant in an urban setting, and then back to flooding. An unidentified woman comments in voiceover, “We’re going to safe Mom’s house.”

The theme music from 48 Hours begins with its stock opening footage and credits.  This opening signals an important terminological moment of pentadic reversal and crisis, indicating a break or rapture in the putatively stable symbolic terrain of civil society, the container--human agencies like levees and dams--no longer contain or control the scene; dialectical speaking, the ratios shift from agency-scene to scene-agency.

After a commercial break, Dan Rather greets the audience. “Good evening. I’m reporting live from Des Moines, Iowa, a city under siege; a city coping with the crisis literally flooding America’s heartland.”  The shot is medium, from above, with the river in the background below and with scores of people in the immediate background urgently sandbagging a large levee; it is nighttime but large lights from above reveal the chain of human action. As the shot moves into a close-up, Rather states, “An incredibly large part of the Mississippi Basis is involved in this flood crisis. Mark Twain once called the Mississippi River ‘monstrous.’ Now the monster is on the loose. It has swallowed homes, towns and livelihood. The toll rises like the tide, and it’s a long way from over. That’s part of the heartache.”  After commenting on the heat wave in the South and East, he notes that “tonight you will meet men and women facing these twin disasters with courage, resolve, and grit.”  Rather proceeds to inform the audience that the program will begin with Phil Jones in “flood ravaged Illinois,” who will report “on people still clinging to their homes and clinging to hope.” 

The opening sequence of Flood, Sweat, and Tears constructs a symbolic terrain where people are at “war” with nature, in a city “under siege,” “fighting this thing,” this “monster,” that threatens to engulf “mom’s house” and “towns and livelihood.”  In cartographic terms, the extent of the massive flooding is visually reduced in the opening footage. Even the long shot of the river is only a partial view of a few miles of river.  This reduction in the scope of the flooding is further reduced as coverage shifts to a particular impact, the house of Kim and Scott Camp to represent the struggle against the “monster.”  Pentadically, the transformation is a progressive narrowing in scope as it shifts from scene to agents. 

After an interlude of theme music, the next segment opens with footage of a hose pumping water over a sandbagged barrier, then to water coming up from a drain on the side of the house, and then to Kim and Scott Camp at their modest home.  The home is almost entirely surrounded by sandbags.  Jones narrates, “Kim and Scott Camp are desperate.”  The shot shifts to inside the Camp home with Scott and Kim both holding children.  Next, we hear Kim, a young mother with an infant on her hip, exhausted and distraught. “It seems like it never ends, and we just have to keep going. We have to keep trying because it’s still ours.”  Jones says, "The river is about to swallow their house.” Kim continues, “We’re doing the best we can. We’ve got—we both come from big families. We’re religious. And we just pray that it’ll hold out.” 

In the next sequence, Jones and Kim walk around to the back of the house; Jones is now holding one of the Camp’s children. As they approach a high sandbagged wall, the shot is from above, with high water on the other side. Long panning shots of the river follow. One shot is from inside the house through a large side window - a shot that invites the audience to see the flood from the Camp’s living room.  Kim comments that her husband did “all the construction work himself with help of friends and family.” Jones in voiceover, “And they build their dreams.” Kim continues, “Everything is new—walls, floor, carpet—the whole works.” Jones, says in voiceover, “the home is on the lowest ground in Hardin, Illinois.” Then speaking to one of the children, Jones asks, “Does that scare you when you see that water out there?” The young girl in his arms nods yes. The camera then shifts to more footage of the flooding. Jones, again in voiceover, “If it goes to the river, the fear is, the whole town will follow.”  Footage continues to show the sandbagging around the house, while Kim discusses a nightmare in which she forgets to close the window at night and floodwaters keep “coming and coming and coming.” Jones then assures the audience that “Kim and Scott Camp and four-year-old Lacey and one year old Levi—they’re not beaten yet.” As this scene ends, Kim discusses how the sandbags will need to be three feet higher, with footage of the sandbags and high water, followed by Jones in voiceover, “Keep holding on Kim and Scott!” 

With a quick cut to prisoners marching like soldiers, we hear Jones in voiceover, “Hope has just arrived in Hardin. Eighty-nine prisoners . . . are here to gang up on the flood.”  Cartographically, the entire sequence’s terms shift as follows: from scene to agents, then to purpose-act, then a return to scene controlling agents. As the scene shifts to the efforts of the prisoners, the emphasis is again on agents and their noble and redemptive efforts, as the young “convicted felons” in a special corrections “boot camp program” help “save the town.” Without resolution regarding the Camp’s house, this sequence ends.  Moving through the water to a close-up of Jones, he comments, “While old man river and the people of Hardin are staring at each other, down south of here, some of the toughest old birds are giving up and calling for help.”  Cartographically, the most prominent ratios in this sequence are scene-agent, followed by agent-agency, with a return to scene-agent.  Perhaps most obvious is that agents are portrayed as struggling via agency with the purpose of controlling a small aspect of the scene, to save one house and one town.

The next sequence begins with footage of a small Coast Guard boat moving quickly along the river, with trees, cars, and houses clearly flood-out in the immediate background.   Reporter Phil Jones is now with Warrant Officer Terry Adams, who describes that beneath the boat “used to be a neighborhood.” This sequence is a rescue mission for an eighty-seven year old Mrs. Millie Adams and her son. Jones notes in voice over that Officer Adam’s “men go into the most devastated areas to save people who’ve been stranded and kidnapped by the flood.”  Just as the boat arrives at Mrs. Adams’ house, the program shifts back to the Camp’s house. Jones comments, “Back in Hardin, Kim and Scott Camp’s crisis appears to be getting worse,” as they face the “likelihood of losing their home.”

The Camp’s house is flooding from the inside because of backed-up sewer lines. We see the Camps, friends, and family urgently trying, with little success, to do something to save the flooding house—the footage shows them digging a drainage ditch and water rising out of the sewer. Jones continues, “It’s one thing after another. The more they try, the worse it gets.”  The footage then shifts back to the rescue of Mrs. Adams with Jones in voiceover saying, “Back at the Coast Guard operation, there’s a happier result to report.” As the rescue sequence progresses Coast Guard officers help a  frail eighty-seven year old woman with a cane into a small boat. Mrs. Adams comments, “I’ve been through a lot in my life but nothing like this.”   

As the sequence ends, Jones informs the audience that Scott Camp “was hospitalized” and that he was “dehydrated and physically exhausted.” Kim spent the day at his bedside; she appears exhausted and notes that she can’t go back to the house anymore. Jones says, “As for the house, well, it’s still here - but barely. As they say, when it rains, it pours. Dan.”  As the program turns back to Dan Rather live, he asks Jones: “You know, why did the Camps build their dreams on such low land?”  Jones replies:

Because the Camps, like many of the people along the rivers here, are children of the river; their parents lived here, their grandparents lived here. They saw the good life. Many of the—communities along here are small communities and they were raised here as children and they think it’s a good place for them to be. They love it. It’s a dream come true for many of them.

Rather, without comment, thanks Jones and turns to a preview regarding the heat wave “gripping the East and the South.” The theme music begins as the program goes to announcements. 

After the commercial break, we again see Rather in the lighted nighttime foreground, from above, with the river in the background below and scores of people in the immediate background urgently sandbagging a large levee. Rather comments: “Let me show you something here. As part of the desperate defense of Des Moines, these people under the lights and into the night, keep doing the back-breaking, hand blistering work of sandbagging; symbolic of what’s going on throughout the Midwest in the fight against rising water.” The remainder of the program covers the heat wave until the final live sequence with Dan Rather delivering his concluding comments:

If there’s good to be found in this flood, it is found in the faces of the brave people who live up and down the rivers of the heartland, the faces of survivors, hearty Midwesterners who refuse to back down, give up or give in. It is found in their enormous generosity, like the people of these sandbag lines tonight—neighbors helping neighbors with open arms and open hearts. We’ve seen it repeatedly since we’ve been here, friends and strangers sharing food, supplies, clothing, money and that most precious commodity: hope. I’m Dan Rather, and that’s 48 Hours.

From a cartographic perspective, a number of critical transformations in the symbolic landscape are significant. Primarily, these sequences repeat the progression of the prior sequences. Each sequence begins with the prominent ratio of scene-agent, as we witness specific agents controlled, “stranded,” “kidnapped,” and trying to overcome the scene.  As the sequence moves to the rescue operation and the “struggles” of the Camps to save their home, the dominant ratio shifts to agency-agent. In one instance, the agents achieve a modicum of success insofar as they are able to rescue Mrs. Adams. Yet the Camps are unsuccessful in saving the house.  Despite the shift to particular agents, the scene controls agents, whose agencies, in the end, are insufficient to gain control over the situation.

The program is tautological as it moves from scene-agent to agency-agent and back to scene-agent. The concluding moments present a large group of agents engaging in the agency of sandbagging, “refusing to back down, give up or give in.”  These agents are not in control of the scene; they are held hostage by the impersonal material scene, which is marked by its own destructive dynamism that lies uncharted, somewhere beyond the map’s edge.  These agents’ bodies are symbolically transformed into agencies, too,, with an almost instinctive mechanical motion. The episode presents agents that have no choice but to “bravely” engage in further interventions via agency to control the scene. 

Perhaps the most telling part of these sequences is when Rather asks Jones spontaneously, “Why did the Camps built their dreams on such low ground?” It is a perilous question because it risks blaming the victims, who are being transformed into brave survivors, locked in a heroic battle with nature. Here a small portion of the symbolic terrain points toward an agent-act ratio and an opportunity to explore another viewpoint about the situation and the relationship between individuals in society and their choices regarding the natural world.  Investigating the symbolic terrain of other orientations about the scene, however, is beyond the horizon of the program’s terminological landscape. Jones elides the agent-act question raised by Rather by indicating that the Camps had little choice about being there, because they “are children of the river.”  The shift is back to scene-agent; as the episode ends it leaves all other points of view unmapped. 

Lastly, as noted above, this symbolic map is reduced in both scope and circumference as it presents specific people in specific places of the flooding. Despite its limits in circumference and complexity, the symbolic terrain of Flood, Sweat, and Tears provides a relatively accurate representation of the fear, suffering, and hardship of specific individuals and communities impacted by the flood.  The map drawn by 48 Hours presents the events via a scene-agent ratio in contrast to the survey reports drawn by NOAA and the USACE, which present the events as scene-agency. While the reports provide significant scope, but little in the way of typographical complexity in circumference, 48 Hours offers a narrow scope, although similarly lacking circumference with its focus on the scene’s specific agents and communities.  Nevertheless, both maps present a narrow symbolic universe in which scene-agency and scene-agent are the dominant points of orientation, while the flood is implied to be a random act of nature. 

In the critical discussion below, Flood, Sweat, and Tears is considered in context of the media coverage of the 1993 flood and other natural disasters.   

Critical Discussion

From a global pentadic perspective, Flood, Sweat, and Tears is typical of much of the landscape of media coverage of natural disasters.24 Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s Nightline, at the beginning of a special on the 1993 flooding, recognized that the public was growing weary of the repetitiveness of such coverage, commenting that the images and stories create “a sort of sensory overload” (Bettag, 1993).25  As Fry (2004) notes, television, in particular, with its “penchant for striking visual content,” uses “the camera lens to frame numerous images of drama and chaos” presenting the events “in such a way as to convey hopelessness, presenting them as battles between powerless humans and powerful nature” (pp. 723-724).  Much of this coverage invokes pity, fear, and sympathy from the public as it witnesses the relentless visual spectacles of calamity.26 Also typical of this type of coverage are narratives of individual survival, heroism, and rescue (like the Adams rescue) and stories of resiliency that convey a message of the triumph of the human spirit and ingenuity (agency) over nature.  Flood, Sweat, and Tears’ coverage is also typical because it includes a surveying of the scenes of destruction, with its focus on specific victims and survivors. 

Emblematic of this type of coverage is what could be called the “at war with nature” theme, where communities and individuals struggle against nature to save their lives and property, the pentadic ratio in these instances is scene-agent.  Whereas victims lack agency, survivors are portrayed as heroic agents.  Rozario (2007), commenting on the “media’s preoccupation” and “ubiquitous” focus during calamities upon human suffering and struggle against nature, notes that this helps “to ensure that disaster victims rather than, say, the homeless, the poor, and other victims of economic misfortune,” are “deemed uniquely worthy of attention and support from the government, the public, and philanthropic organizations” (pp. 142-143).

Missing from these preoccupations on human suffering and struggles is any consideration of how or why any specific victims come to be victims in the first place.  As long as natural disasters are viewed as “random acts of nature,” so too are the victims of disasters who are simply unlucky and misfortunate. Like much of the media’s coverage of the 1993 flood, Flood, Sweat, and Tears lacks any meaningful exploration of the relationship between victimhood and issues such as race and class and the acts, purposes, and agencies of the contemporary industrial-technological scene in the production of the flood.

The media’s representation of the victims paid scant attention to the poverty  of the Midwest’s flood plains and the Federally subsidized housing in those areas. In St. Charles County, MO, one of the worst struck counties during the 1993 flood, it was the poor who lived in the most vulnerable areas and were most likely to be dispossessed.27  “Awareness . . . that disaster policy is a product of political choices or the interplay of material interests” is “concealed under a rhetoric that cast rescue and relief as the heroic struggle of ‘man’ against ‘nature’” (Rozario, p. 141).

Consideration of sociological factors in becoming a victim of a natural disaster is typically absent in such media coverage, as Powell, et al (2006) note in their analysis of the media’s initial coverage of Katrina: “the mainstream media  . . . continued to fixate on the destructive force of Katrina’s winds to the exclusion of everything else, including race and racism” (p. 63).   As audiences across the country watched the spectacle of the tragedy, with countless images of blacks crowded on to rooftops, the media relentlessly presented dramatic footage of deaths, property damage, and the suffering of victims with little discussion of race or class as a factor.  When it became impossible to ignore race as an issue, the mainstream media “did not seek to discover how racism contributed to the catastrophe” as a structural issue in modern capitalist society, but rather limited its coverage to individuals (p. 64) such as President Bush.28  Nor was there any discussion of New Orleans’ “middle-class-oriented evacuation plan,” which was “predicated on people leaving in their own vehicles” (p. 65). 

Nevertheless, Katrina was a moment when it became impossible to avoid the relationship among race, class, and poverty and being a victim of Katrina.  The New Republic, Newsweek, and U.S. News and World Report each reported stories that drew “on the deep wells of sympathy traditionally reserved for disaster victims” and the “travails of the ‘other America’” (Rozario, p. 216).29  But the media did not quite close the circle by linking the coordinates of sociological factors of victimization with the regime of technological control over nature that had made Katrina’s impact possible.30  Rather the coverage, as the New Republic noted, revealed “not only that the poor had been abandoned but that this was symptomatic of a social order that treated the poor in general, and people of color in particular, with contempt” (Scheiber, 2005, September 19, p. 6). Jonathan Adler, writing for Newsweek, reached a similar conclusion, commenting that Katrina had “fixed [the] restless gaze of [Americans] on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention” (2005, September 19, p. 42). The lesson of Katrina was not as much about the relationship among race, class, and poverty and being a victim of a natural disaster as it was about problems of race, class, and poverty in America. The media missed an opportunity to establish new coordinate lines for the mapping of natural disasters.  The fact that the Bush administration managed the rescue and relief so poorly only helped to further deflect media attention from the coordinates that linked a failed policy of technological mastery over nature with the political, economic, and sociological factors that contribute to being a victim of a natural disaster.31

By the end of July, 1993, it was clear that there were many lessons to be learned from the flood of the Mississippi. But what lessons did the media coverage develop? The July 26 cover of Newsweek, for example,proclaimed, “Deluge: Lessons of a disaster,” with an image of a man wading through water up to his neck. The primary message that Newsweek conveyed to its readers was that “the lesson of the disaster, which is the lesson of most disasters, is to never underestimate nature” (Adler, 1993, July 26, p. 23). USA Today raised more serious concerns over whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer’s investment of billions of dollars was “worth the cost,” and if development along the banks of the river had contributed to the damage (Taming River, 1993, July 15, p. 11A). On the same page was the USACE response, more than twice the length of the questions, which countered these inquiries by outlining how much damage had been prevented. As Brig. General Genega noted, “In the Midwest, the Federal flood-control structures in place have performed as they were designed and have prevented an estimated $8.2 billion in damages that would have otherwise occurred” (Genega, 1993).  Counter claims about how much money was saved by these structures were not developed.  In fact, “no one actually knows the total cost to the Federal government of the 1993 flood” since “there is no central database that records the expenditures by all Federal responding agencies for specific disasters and governmental units” (Platt, p. 232).  Nor was there any questioning of Gen. Genega’s assertion that flood-control structures “performed as they were designed” in the media’s coverage of the flood, when “environmentalists have long argued” that these structures “actually contributed to the destructiveness of floods” (Steinberg, p. xviii).  These treatments in the media’s “critical coverage” serve to reinforce the impression that the flood was a random and unpredictable act of nature for which no one is accountable.  Here again, the map of media coverage essentially masks the extent of socio-economic, socio-political factors, and human culpability in natural disasters. 

Natural disasters have proven to be difficult challenges for politicians and for rescue and relief by local, state, and federal agencies.32 Unfortunately, the media’s primary critical preoccupation, when considering human culpability in its coverage of disasters, is with the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of governmental agencies during rescue and relief—the failures of administrative agency.  This, too, deflects attention from the coordinates that link technological mastery over nature with the political, economic, and sociological factors that contribute to being a victim of a natural disaster.  Coverage by the media tends to invigorate the public’s expectation that government do everything it can to aid victims and prevent future damge. Ironically, these demands result in further industrial-technological attempts to control nature.  

Is there an analogue to the technological psychosis of the media coverage in public disaster management? A 1994 presidential report on floodplain management by the Galloway Committee made thoughtful and positive proposals for improvement but few recommendations have been carried out.  As the media moves on to new scenes of destruction and human suffering, the public’s horror and sympathy follow, with scant attention to the importance of human agency in the production of disaster risks.  Neither Congress nor the executive branch of government achieved more than a miscarriage of good intentions regarding the implementation of the policy recommendations of the Galloway committee.33  The levees and dams were rebuilt, higher and stronger —as in New Orleans--with little meaningful change in disaster management policy.  In a closed universe of discourse, where natural disasters are ubiquitously viewed as random acts of nature, “disorderly nature—as opposed to social and economic forces—is seen as the problem that technology must solve. But natural disasters are not simply scientific dilemmas in need of a technical solution. They are instead “the product of particular social and political environments” (p. 152). 

In an ironic signal of the supremacy of the technological psychosis, twenty-four hour cable news now transforms all major natural disasters into profitable spectacles of destruction, complete with an endless line of supernumerary victims--“the CNN syndrome”--while screening out the politics of disaster management policy.  Is it too idealistic to hope that the news media will develop a multi-focused approach that includes a wider circumference and scope of voices, representations, and experiences of disasters, one that stresses agents as more than either heroic or tragic victims frozen in a single moment of time and place?

With the pluralized dialectic operationalized through the pentad, Burke sought to displace the totalizing and authoritative privileging of any particular rhetorical construction or version of reality by seeking out “counter-statements”34 and “corrective rationalizations”35 to the dominant orientations of the technological society.  According to this mantra, any complete or well-rounded treatment of a subject needs to include the full panoply of discourses, representations, and orientations detailed in Burke’s discussion of the pentadic ratios because no single perspective is capable of being fully correct.  What, then, might a more well developed or well rounded and, by definition, more accurate symbolic map of natural disasters include? 

Given that the 1993 flood was among the longest lasting and most exhaustively covered disasters in American history, the media clearly had time to develop other aspects of its coverage than it did.  One can only wonder what Kim and Scott Camp and others impacted by the flood would have to say about the flood and flood management policy six months, a year, or five years after the media and the public turned their attention to the next catastrophe.  Perhaps the media could provide greater coverage on the history of flooding along the Mississippi (and other engineered scenes). Media could devote greater critical attention to the nation’s attempts at engineering the river to suit the needs of an advanced capitalistic industrial society and to the relationship of these projects with the entrenched interests served by such policies.  Perhaps the media could be more attentive to the critical discourses of those in the disaster research field, environmentalists, and naturalists, who have long challenged the orientations that have dominated the politics and policies of disaster management.  Perhaps media coverage could be more attentive to the federal, state, and local debates and decisions regarding disaster and flood control management policies, despite the fact that this type of coverage lacks the dramatic elements that typically invoke the interest and sympathy of the public.

Perhaps it is too unrealistic to imagine that the media can resist the technological psychosis of the age and address its pentadic preferences.  The media are, themselves, a form of agency, whose products are made possible by the technologies of advanced industrial capitalistic society--technologies that enable the disasters that become profitable media events.36  Anderson and Prelli, following Burke, suggest, it is “the function of intellectuals, or critics and of artists, to create [a] dialectical process through rehearsal of values and experiences antithetical to those privileged by the dominant scientific-technological orientation of our time” (p. 79) that can function as counterarguments and correctives. It is partially for the purposes of counterargument and corrective that this essay employed critical viewpoints from the disaster research field to fill-in some of the symbolic terrain and to provide greater circumference, scope, and depth of detail than that presented in the media. As noted in the introduction, this essay is limited to how the media respond to and construct meanings out of natural disasters as one aspect of the complex field of rhetorical activity occasioned by natural disasters.  In order for a more complete symbolic map to be drawn of the rhetorics of disaster, it would require greater critical attention by rhetorical scholars to the full panoply of symbolic representations--be they intuitive, visionary, revelatory, critical, or artistic--using a variety of critical methods of analysis.


This essay employed pentadic cartography in the analysis of media coverage of natural disasters with particular attention to the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi. I began with a discussion of pentadic analysis followed by a synoptic pentadic analysis of the survey reports from NOAA and the USACE informed by scholarship from the disaster research field that served as the baseline for the symbolic map of the 1993 flood. Next, I employed a detailed pentadic analysis of CBS’ 48 Hours: Flood, Sweat and Tears as an exemplar of media coverage of natural disasters that overstresses destruction and human suffering in which natural disasters are rhetorically constructed as “random acts of nature.”
In the critical discussion, I argued that media coverage ultimately masks motives associated with the inner workings of industrial-technological society, including factors such as: race and class, failures in mitigation, our own culpability in reoccurring disasters because of growth and development, and the political economy of capitalism.  I also argued that the rhetoric of the media functions to close the universe of discourse and contributes to a terminological vocabulary of motives, a technological psychosis, which constructs natural disasters as simply random acts of nature that technology can control.  The coverage by the media tends to reinforce the public’s demand that politicians and the government do everything they can to help the victims and prevent future recurrences without serious consideration of long term disaster management policies.  It is irrevocably hoped that this essay will provide the foundation for further critical engagements with the rhetorics of disaster.


1. See Fleetwood (2006); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Kline (2007); Pielke (1996); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); Racevskis (1998); and Steinberg (2006).

2. The rhetorical analysis of disasters largely has been limited to specific case studies that typically are not natural disasters but rather political crises and technological accidents. See Bernard-Donals (2001); Courtright and Slaughter (2007); Gross and Walzer (1997); Lindsay (1999); Littlefield and Quenette (2007); Lule, 1990); and Waymer and Heath (2007).  For an interesting analysis of how photo coverage of Hurricane Katrina participated in the creation of a rhetorical situation see Booth and Davisson (2008).

3. For a purely scientific report on the history of the 1993 flood see Changnon (1996).

4. See Burke, (1969), 59-61; Brummett (1984a & 1984b); and Crable (2000).

5. I limit this analysis to coverage of natural disasters as opposed to human induced disasters like the BP oil spill, war, and terrorism.

6. As King (2009) notes “Anderson and Prelli's Pentadic Cartography, the system of rhetorical mapping . . . is now being hailed as one of the most original and generative uses of the pentad. It has been used to decode advertising, to critique politics, to provide a vocabulary for visual rhetorics, and it has unexpected uses. It has even been used . . . to map birth trauma and post traumatic stress in delivery rooms.”

7. See especially Dombrowsky (2005); Cutter (2005a, 2005b); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); and Steinberg (2006).

8. There are numerous exemplary critical studies that employ and discuss Burke’s pentad, among these are: Anderson & Prelli (2001); Birdsell (1987); Blankenship, Murphy, & Rossenwasser (1974); Blankenship, Fine, & Davis (1983); Brummett (1979); Conrad (1984); Fergusson (1966); Fisher (1974); Hamlin & Nichols (1973); King (1985); Ling (1970); Overington (1977); Signorile (1989); Tonn, Endress, & Diamond (1993); and Wess (2001).

9. The pentad enables the critic to consider the constitutive functions of symbolic acts to explore the motives and ambiguities that attend various “philosophic idioms” of action and motion by casting terms into materialism (scene), pragmatism (agency), mysticism (purpose), idealism (agent) as the terministic screens of realism (the act).  See Burke (1969, pp. 127-131).

10. Anderson and Prelli’s pentadic cartography has been used for a variety of rhetorical activities including their own analysis of a sixty second commercial and Marcuse’s social criticism; to chart the discourse of faith and politics (DePalma, et al., 2008); to analyze women’s maternity leave (Meisenbach, Remke, Buzzanell & Liu, 2008); to map birth trauma narratives (Beck, 2006); and to study the discourse of physicians and midwives testimony at the criminal trial of a midwife (Ropp, 2002).  For more on critical rhetorical approaches see McKerrow (1989).

11. See Burke (1984), especially pp. 44-49.

12. See Burke’s (1966) discussion on terministic screens, pp. 44-46.

13. Also see Burke (1969), pp. 184-287.

14. Interestingly, and perhaps indicative of the extent of the technological psychosis, is the emergence of post-structural thought wherein the agency of language displaces the agent as the locus of meaning and action (Crusius, 1999, p. 42) and (Oravec, 1989, p. 176).

15. See Burke (1969) especially pp. 127-131 and 286-287.

16. For a more complete explanation of the 1993 flood in hydrological and meteorological terms see Changnon (1996).

17. The cultural transition from viewing disasters as a deliberate “act of God” to a “random act of nature,” corresponds with the shift to modernity (Rozario, pp. 135-143).  In the act of God view disasters are constructed by employing the agent-agency ratio in which the scene is presented as an agency of God who acts purposefully to punish human transgressions.  An example is the Presbyterian Church minister who “compared the Asian tsunami to Noah’s flood and claimed it was an act of God to punish ‘pleasure seekers’ who broke the Sabbath”; the minister argued that “those who explained the disaster ‘simply as a natural phenomenon resulting from a movement in the earth’s crust underneath the ocean floor’ were forgetting that God ‘is in sovereign control of all events’” (English, 2005, February 10).

18. See Cutter (2005a, 2005b); Hartman and Squires (2006); Hewitt (1995); Perry and Quarantelli (2005); Platt (1999); Quarantelli (1995); and Steinberg (2006).

19. For more on the history of the Mississippi River Commission see Rozario (pp. 143-150); Steinberg (pp. 109-113); and Platt (pp. 2-8). For an excellent history of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi and its political and social import see Barry (1997).

20. During the flooding President Clinton toured flooded areas and engaged in a number of town hall meetings, held a “flood summit” in St. Louis on July 17, held press conferences and exchanges with reporters, and gave three addresses on the flooding (See Clinton, July 4, 1993; July 8, 1993; and August 12, 1993).

21. For an astute discussion on the history of religious interpretations of natural disasters in American history see Rozario (2007). For examples of the types of religious responses to the 1993 flooding see (Merrell, 1993).

22. Also see Berrington and Jemphrey (2003).

23. All of the quotes in this section are from (CBS, 1993).

24. While this analysis focuses on the primary category of this coverage,analysis of all these categories would likely reach similar conclusions; namely, that the media implicitly and explicitly present natural disasters as random acts of nature and thereby narrow the range of political discourse and public policy toward natural disasters.  There are four readily identifiable categories of media coverage of natural disasters that intersect and overlap, these are: (1) the personal and communal struggles that focus on the impact of disasters on particular agents and communities; (2) the continuing coverage and updates of events as they unfold, including reports on weather conditions, the tracking of tornados, hurricanes, aftershocks, rising water levels, etc., (3) the emergency and political responses and relief efforts of local, State, and Federal agencies and officials; and (4) the critical accountability coverage that focuses on the effectiveness of political and institutional agencies in rescue, relief, and recovery.  The categories are drawn from scholarly surveys and overviews of media coverage of natural disasters. See especially Adams (1986); Berrington and Jemphrey (2003); Fry (2003, 2004, and 2006); Piotrowski and Armstrong (1998); Singer and Endreny (2009); Sood, Stockdale, and Rogers (1987); Svenvold (2005); Sturken (2001, 2006); and Walters and Hornig (1993).

25. Nightline shifted the emphasis of its July 13, 1993 episode from the “images of flooding and loss” to “words, the words of people who know and fear and love the Mississippi” (Bettag, 1993).  The shift was to a refreshingly original act-purpose ratio that explored the mystical ambiguities of the Mississippi as an agent.

26. For an overview of these stories see Des Moines Register (1993); Life Magazine (1993, September); U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Federal Emergency Management Agency (2003).

27. For a fuller discussion of the relationship between Federal flood control policy, class and vulnerability during the 1993 flood see Platt (1999, pp. 215-240).
28. While no one in the media directly called President Bush a racist, rapper Kanye West’s accusation received wide coverage and comment. See Stein (2010, November, 2).

29. See Adler (2005, September 19); Scheiber (2005, September 19); and Zuckerman (2005, September 19).

30. The risk to New Orleans was well known; see Quindlen (2005, September 19).

31. For more on the Bush administration’s mismanagement of Katrina and the media’s coverage see Brinkley, D. (2007); Hartman and Squires (2006); and Horn, J. (2008).

32. For a synoptic history of rescue and relief policy in the U.S. see Platt (1999, pp. 11-46).  For a genre analysis on the history of presidential addresses on natural disasters see (McClure, 2011).  For more on Katrina as a political crisis of the Bush administration see Benoit and Henson (2009); and Bumiller and Nagourney (2005, September 4).

33. For the full Galloway committee’s report see Interagency Floodplain Management Review Committee (1994).

34. See Burke (1968), pp. 107-122.

35. See Burke (1984), p. 65.

36. See especially Fleetwood (2006); Sturken (2006); and Svenvold (2005).


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* Kevin R. McClure (PhD, The Pennsylvania State University, 1992) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Studies at The University of Rhode Island. He can be contacted via email at

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"Media Coverage of Natural Disasters: Pentadic Cartography and the Case of the 1993 Great Flood of the Mississippi" by Kevin R. McClure is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at