W. Joseph Campbell

Absent in looking back: Katrina’s lessons for the press

In Anniversaries, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, Watergate myth on August 31, 2010 at 6:06 am

The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall has prompted a fair amount of hand-wringing and knitted-brow discussions about lessons still to be absorbed, five years after the storm’s onslaught on the Gulf Coast.

The Washington Post, for example, carried a lengthy and rather preachy commentary the other day about “Katrina’s unlearned lessons.” The commentary included this warning:

“Barring urgent action, if the gulf region is hit by another big hurricane this fall, its communities will be knocked down–and this time, many will not be able to get back up.”

Possibly. But it’s highly speculative.

Largely absent in the retrospective assessments about the hurricane are discussions about lessons the news media should take, or should have taken, from their often-exaggerated reporting about the nightmarish violence Katrina supposedly brought to New Orleans.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks 10 prominent media-driven myths, the coverage of Katrina’s aftermath “was in important respects flawed and exaggerated.

“On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

Little of it was true.

What’s more, I write, the exaggerated, over-the-top reporting about mayhem and unspeakable violence “was 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 [New Orleans] Superdome and Convention Center, and of broadly stigmatizing a city and its people.”

In the weeks following Katrina’s landfall, leading news organizations produced a brief flurry of reports revisiting, and criticizing, the accounts of mayhem and anarchy in New Orleans.

“The media joined in playing whisper-down-the-lane,” the Philadelphia Inquirer said in late September 2005 about post-Katrina coverage from New Orleans, “and stories that defied common sense were treated as news.”

But as I write in Getting It Wrong, “The news media’s contrition and introspection did not last for long, however. The self-critical articles tended to be one-off assessments that usually received little prominence. The Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Washington Post all placed their retrospective articles on inside pages, for example.

“After the flurry of post-Katrina assessments in late September and early October 2005,” I add, “the news media demonstrated little interest in sustaining or revisiting the self-critique.”

Five years on, Katrina’s lessons and reminders for the news media remain relevant. Among them is the near-certainty that erroneous reports will proliferate in the immediate aftermath of any major disaster.

As Kathleen Tierney of the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado-Boulder told a congressional panel investigating Katrina’s consequences, “misleading or completely false media reports should have been among the most foreseeable elements of Katrina.”

As her comment suggested, the news media’s susceptibility to reporting disaster-related falsehoods and rumors has long been recognized. I cite in Getting It Wrong a prescient article titled “Coping With the Media in Disasters: Some Predictable Problems” that was published in the mid-1980s in Public Administration Review.

The authors–in an observation that anticipated Katrina’s aftermath–noted that news organizations “can spread rumors, and so alter the reality of disaster, at least to those well away from it, that they can bias the nature of the response. They can and do create myths about disasters, myths which will persist even among those with contrary disaster experience.”

The near-complete breakdown of communication networks in Katrina’s aftermath certainly complicated matters for reporters. Telephone service was out across New Orleans after Katrina roared through. Cell phones did not function. Electricity was scarce.

Amid such conditions, stories that at first may have had some factual underpinning became “exaggerated and distorted as they were passed orally—often the only mode of communication—through extraordinarily frustrated and stressed multitudes of people, including refugees, cops, soldiers, public officials and, ultimately, the press,” wrote Brian Thevenot in “Mythmaking in New Orleans,” a fine article published at the end of 2005 in American Journalism Review.

While the communications breakdown helps explain why exaggerated reporting was rampant in New Orleans in Katrina’s aftermath, it does not exonerate the flawed coverage or let journalists off the hook.

In varying degrees, communication disruptions are elements of all major disasters.

And as I write in Getting It Wrong, the collapse of communication networks should have given reporters pause, leaving them “more cautious and more wary about what they heard and reported, and thus less likely to traffic in wild and dubious claims.”

WJC

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