Just the Facts, Ma'am

Posted: Oct 10, 2005 12:05 AM
Thanks to a long report in the new Orleans Times-Picayune, we now know that most of the incredible tales of savagery in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were simply made up by panicky residents and passed along by the media.

On September 2, a CNN report cited an unidentified police officer who said he saw bodies riddled with bullet holes and one man with the top of his head completely shot off. Another unnamed officer, a sergeant, said he had to pass by the bodies of other police officers who had drowned doing their job. So far as we know, none of this was true.

One of two Times-Picayune staffers who wrote the article was guilty of some dubious reporting himself. His September 5 article began, “Arkansas National Guardsman Mikel Brooks stepped through the food service entrance of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on Monday, flipped on the light at the end of his machine gun, and started pointing out bodies.” Unlike the CNN report, this piece named an actual person as the source, but it was written as if the reporter was authenticating all that Brooks claimed. Brooks says, “Don’t step in that blood-it’s contaminated.” Pointing out bodies, Brooks says, “That’s a kid. There’s another one in the freezer, a 7-year-old with her throat cut.” Under great pressure, reporters sometimes forget to ask pertinent questions, such as how did Brooks know the blood was contaminated, or that the dead girl-one of the most mentioned phantom figures in all the Katrina reporting-was exactly 7 years old? In fact, the reporter saw four bodies, not the 30 to 40 that was reported, and no dead girl.

A lot more of this circulated though the media. The Ottawa Sun reported that “a man seeking help was gunned down by a National Guard soldier” and a man was “run down and then shot by a New Orleans police officer.” Editor & Publisher interviewed a reporter, back from Iraq, who said New Orleans was almost as dangerous as the Middle East. The New York Times reported: “Like passengers on a doomed ship, they [Superdome evacuees] were desperate to get out of the noxious, violence-ridden stadium.” Noxious it was, but the “violence-ridden” condition is harder to pin down. The Superdome “just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done,” Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard told the Los Angeles Times. “What I saw in the Superdome was just tremendous amounts of people helping people.” Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré told the Washington Post that reporters got bogged down trying to tell people how bad things were rather than “gathering facts and corroborating that information.”

Post-hysteria reporting has not been kind to the general media coverage of the crisis. The state Department of Health and Hospitals counted 10 dead at the Superdome and four at the convention center. Only two of those are believed to have been murdered. (The city averages five or six homicides a week even without hurricanes.) Police Superintendent Eddie Compass, who did so much to inflame the panic, said on September 28 that there is “not one official report of rape or sexual assault.” Though rape is notoriously underreported, his sex-crimes unit investigated every rumor of rape or atrocity in the Superdome, made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

Heart and soul. So why was so much of the reporting so wrong? Obviously, reporters were working under terrible conditions, with telephones out and much of the city underwater. New Orleans’s only important reachable authorities, Mayor Ray Nagin and Superintendent Compass, issued hysterical statements that reinforced some of the worst rumors. Nagin decried “animalistic” behavior with “drug-starving crazy people . . . degraded into these devils.” Compass went on Oprah, saying, “Little babies [are] getting raped.”

Another factor is the debate within the news media about whether reporters should stick to dry facts or report with heart and emotion. New Orleans was a grand opportunity for emotional reporting. The nation was indeed outraged, though we now know that much of that outrage was the result of wild rumors and bad reporting. The New York Times did at least two pieces praising emotionalism. One hailed CNN's Anderson Cooper under the headline “An Anchor Who Reports Disaster News With a Heart on His Sleeve.” Another praised the crisis reportage for being “buoyed by a rare sense of righteous indignation by a news media that is usually on the defensive.” Personally, I don’t need reporters to supply righteous indignation. I can handle that on my own. What I need is reporters who separate rumor from fact and just tell me what they know for sure actually happened.