Media gets an 'F' on Katrina

Posted: Aug 18, 2006 12:00 AM
Media gets an 'F' on Katrina

In a little over a week, August 29 to be exact, the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina will be observed. Expect some pretty extensive coverage on the cable channels, especially on a certain gray-haired CNN reporters’ program, about all the lessons learned over the past year. There should be plenty of discussion about what Katrina revealed about race and poverty in America and how it exposed weaknesses in the government. What I would like, but don’t expect to see, however, are exposes of the failures in reporting the story and some explanations of how such failures could occur. It would also be nice to hear some corrections to the flawed record so many Americans have come to believe as fact.

At a Duke University website I found that the “Duke faculty from a variety of disciplines offer their perspectives on some of the issues and challenges that still exist as the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina approaches.” The list of issues faculty would be discussing included repopulation of New Orleans, lingering health issues, mental health issues, improving housing, Louisiana recovery efforts, and even “Are national disasters punishments from God?” and “Bush administration incompetence during Katrina, 9/11.”

What was not offered by the Duke faculty was an examination of journalistic incompetence during Katrina, much of which, I would argue, was the result of many reporters’ rush to pin all blame for the aftermath of the storm on the federal government and the Bush administration.

On the list of events set to mark August 29, is "Hands Around the Dome," a gathering “marking the ordeal of those who sought refuge in the Superdome.” Those at the Superdome and the Convention Center did suffer through a horrible ordeal, but some of the reporting of those ordeals was pretty horrible, too.

Reporting of unsubstantiated rumors was especially rampant in coverage of the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center. Politicians repeating the stories gave them additional credibility and resulted in them receiving even more coverage. A month after the storm hit, the Los Angeles Times described some of the misreporting:

The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."

Indeed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

The Los Angeles Times story then offered some possible reasons for the bad reports. “Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor.”

Call me crazy, but another factor may have been the eagerness of some reporters to latch onto any story that could be used as an example of government incompetence, while giving much less attention to the extraordinary and unprecedented, and extremely successful, operation by the Coast Guard to rescue thousands of people in very dangerous conditions.

Stories, such as the one published by the L.A. Times cited above, did alert the public to some of the bad reporting during Katrina, but those stories got much less attention than the original reports. What was even more pervasive than the factually incorrect reports, however, were blanket statements about the racial component of the story and the tone of the reports, which were often more critical of federal government efforts than those of state and local governments.

While I don’t expect journalists to point out all the mistakes they made, it will be interesting to see whether or not the politicians commenting on the anniversary will make any effort to correct the record where gross misperceptions remain. More interesting will be to observe whether any of those politicians still cite incorrect information from those original wrong reports one year later.

The tone and choice of topics during coverage of the anniversary could have some significant political ramifications as the story will play a part in setting a stage for upcoming congressional elections. The story could possibly have even bigger effects felt in 2008. In anticipation of the upcoming anniversary, many politicians have made pilgrimages to the site of the most devastating storm in modern history. Not surprisingly, some of those politicians are often cited presidential hopefuls.

Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu recently took Senators Barack Obama and John Kerry on a tour. John Kerry, who was making his third visit in the past year said, “It’s a time to measure what have we done. It’s a shame that it’s going to take a one-year anniversary for everybody to refocus. I think people will be shocked by how little has happened.”

As I wrote last year, one potential presidential candidate, Rudy Giuliani, might have had his prospects helped by the experience of Katrina. Another politician, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, became discussed as a potential presidential candidate due to his outstanding performance in response to the storm.

Other politicians faced intense scrutiny during the Katrina crisis, and results ranged even among those criticized most harshly. While FEMA director, Michael Brown wound up the butt of jokes and out of a job, New Orleans Mayor Ray (school bus) Nagin, was re-elected to office.

It appears that most journalists, even those guilty of the worst of the misreporting, have come through a year later with consequences similar to those enjoyed by Mayor Nagin.