Of course we didn't need to wait until autumn fell to know that some of what appeared in the press during, and immediately following, Katrina was false. A columnist for the London "Sun" told a tall tale of Marine helicopter gunships shooting starving black people in New Orleans. A writer at a "The Huffington Post" reported cannibalism. Both those stories were, of course, wholly fabricated. But you didn't have to look for batty writers to read such alarming fiction. It seemed everyone was reporting the worst. The worst, which mercifully didn't always pan out. Mercifully for humanity, but not for the media.
It is obvious a lesson was not learned if the mining-disaster coverage is any indication. And if Brian Williams' predecessor Tom Brokaw is representative of the official newsroom Katrina assessment, we have failed to learn anything. On a year-end edition of "Meet the Press," he claimed, "there were no gray areas in Katrina."
The irony in Brian Williams pointing blame right away at "officials" -- presumably the mining company -- is that the mentality of making a bad story worse seems to be a trend among news "officials."
But there's a back-to-basics solution: just report the facts. And if you don't know what's going on on the ground, go ahead and say you don't know until you do. There's no long-term prestige that comes with being wrong first. And it's hard to undo the damage done when your voice carries -- whether it be stoking racial flames or compounding families' grief.