W. Joseph Campbell

Mainstream media ‘fractured’ in covering Katrina

In Anniversaries, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths on August 27, 2010 at 11:27 am

The Nation offered yesterday an incisive assessment of the news media’s coverage of post-Katrina New Orleans that was as thoughtful as any I’ve seen amid the indulgence in “anniversary journalism” in recent days.

The article was not entirely a critique of the media’s performance but sought to reconstruct what it called the “story of the storm.” At times it was predictably dogmatic (i.e., “The levees broke and so did the bulwarks that protected the president,” a reference to George W. Bush’s popularity).

But the article was pretty much spot-on in characterizing the media’s over-the-top reporting about the violence, mayhem, and anarchy that Katrina supposedly unleashed on New Orleans. It’s a topic discussed in the closing chapter of Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks prominent media-driven myths.

I write in Getting It Wrong that post-Katrina reporting from New Orleans represented “no high, heroic aftermath in American journalism.”  The coverage, I note, “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong.”

The Nation describes the U.S. mainstream media as having “fractured under the pressure of reporting such a huge and complex story. Journalists on the ground often wrote empathic and accurate stories and broke out of their ‘objective’ roles to advocate for the desperate and rail against systemic failures.

“Meanwhile … credulous television, online and print reporters spread lurid rumors about baby rapists and mass murders and treated minor and sometimes justified thefts as the end of civilization. They used words like ‘marauding’ and ‘looting’ as matches, struck over and over until they got a conflagration of opinion going.”

That’s well-put.

As is this passage:

“The stories of social breakdown were quietly retracted in September and October 2005, but the damage had been done. A great many found new confirmation of the old stereotypes that in times of crisis people—particularly poor and nonwhite people—revert to a Hobbesian war of each against each.”

So why does all this still matter, five years on?

The anniversary of Katrina’s onslaught presents an opportunity for journalists to revisit and reexamine the flawed reporting from New Orleans, with an eye toward taking lessons by which to improve coverage of adversity and disasters.

After all, the exaggerated, over-the-top reporting from New Orleans was, I write in Getting It Wrong, “neither benign nor without consequences. It had the very real and serious effects of delaying the arrival of aid to New Orleans, of diverting and distorting the deployment of resources and capabilities, of heightening the anxiety of evacuees at the Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”

It’s also useful for journalists covering disasters to hone a pronounced measure of skepticism about pronouncements by senior public officials.

In post-Katrina New Orleans, the mayor and the police commissioner “were sources for some of the most shocking and exaggerated reports about the disaster,” I note in Getting It Wrong.

Mayor Ray Nagin said in a memorable appearance September 6, 2005, on Oprah Winfrey’s television show that “hundreds of armed gang members” were terrorizing storm-evacuees inside the Superdome.

The mayor also said conditions there had deteriorated to “an almost animalistic state” and evacuees had been “in that frickin’ Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.”

The police commissioner, Eddie Compass, spoke of other horrors, saying “little babies [were] getting raped” inside the Superdome.

Their accounts were widely reported—and proved to be almost totally without foundation. In all, six people died in the Superdome in Katrina’s aftermath. None of those deaths was related to violent crime.

As the Nation‘s article notes, “Most ordinary people behave remarkably well when their city is ripped apart by disaster. They did in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake; in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake; in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11; and in most disasters in most times and places.

“Those in power, on the other hand, often run amok.”

And post-Katrina New Orleans was an object lesson for journalists.



Many thanks to Instapundit Glenn Reynolds for linking to this post

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