Hurricanes, like all storms, are one of nature’s ways to restore balance. Hurricanes draw warm moisture from over-heated ocean water and flail it across thousands of square miles of atmosphere, in a bid to restore thermal balance.
But this storm may have begun to restore some balance to journalism. Since 9/11, many critics, in and outside of our profession, have complained that the news media have been cowed by patriotism and the machinations of the Bush Administration into abandoning its traditional role as government watchdog, especially with regard to issues of homeland security. Within days of Katrina’s landfall along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts, reporters on the scene and broadcast anchors away from it began giving voice to the thousands of people stranded in New Orleans with no obvious sign of federal help.
Soledad O’Brien of CNN, interviewing then Federal Emergency Management Agency leader Michael Brown, wondered aloud why if the United States had arranged an air drop of supplies to Banda Aceh two days after December’s tsunami, why it couldn’t do something similar for people trapped by floodwaters in New Orleans. A New York Times editorial Sept. 1 titled “Waiting for a Leader” read “the President appeared a day later than he was needed.” Matt Wells, a BBC correspondent, summed up the coverage this way: “Amidst the horror, American broadcast journalism just might have grown its spine back, thanks to Katrina.” Howard Kurtz in the Washington Post: “Journalism seems to have recovered its reason for being.”
Maybe. But the real test is still to come. Will reporters continue to hammer away at government shortcomings when the evidence isn’t bodies floating in the water, but documents that need to be requested and examined? How well will we cover the impact of U.S. policy abroad when there are so few foreign bureaus? Will national news organizations be distracted again by another celebrity trial, or a notorious but local crime?
Of course, when storms such as Hurricane Katrina make land, they do catastrophic damage to people and their creations. They upset the human balance. Our thoughts and prayers are with the millions of people along and near the Gulf Coast who are affected by the near-total evacuation of New Orleans. And we applaud the news media companies who continued to operate, though their audiences were scattered and their advertising income erased.
This will be my final column as president. As promised, I have made my way throughout the country, visiting 20 cities in 15 states (and the District of Columbia) in nine of our 12 regions. I have had multiple chances to speak to groups of journalists and citizens alike, meet with SPJ local officers and members and even potential recruits. I have enjoyed it all. But as I think back, some of the images that strike me come from news meetings I attended in several cities.
What I observed each time, what I wish everyone in our audience could observe, were professionals critiquing their own work, carefully weighing the importance of stories, and taking into account the effect of their work on their audience. I knew what this looked like before I became SPJ president, both from attending my own news meeting and some others. The public probably does not, and that may be one of the reasons we suffer from poor rankings in surveys.
One of the unexpected legacies of my year as your president is a renewed dedication to public outreach. If our current plans come to fruition, by next year you will have new resources to stage forums with members of the public, and some of our volunteer members, recruited for our new speakers’ bureau, will be appearing in far more places than I could get to this year.
My hope is we’ll be able to show the people who attend these events that our country is full of dedicated journalists who keep the public interest paramount and love what they do.
Irwin Gratz is the local host for “Morning Edition” on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.