A former editor once told me that news is what people are talking about. The older I get, the more I understand it. And that’s unfortunate.
People talk about Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart. They talk about Scott Peterson and the BTK killer.
And they talk about the weather.
As Hurricane Katrina prepared to pummel the Gulf Coast, it was on everyone’s minds, and when she made landfall, national TV stations and reporters were there to share the devastation with their audiences.
They stuck around for a bit, covering the somber personal stories, the horrific aftermath and the clean-up efforts. It dominated the news for two weeks.
Then Hurricane Rita rolled in, and many of the media representatives rolled out of the devastation left by Katrina to cover the next disaster.
When Rita failed to produce the same catastrophic results as Katrina, the national media seemed to lose interest.
Writers such as David Carr of The New York Times were pulled out of the area and brought home.
“If I had an excuse, I would have stayed because this story is worth staying close to. But that would be a hopeful gesture, not a commercial one,” Carr wrote in his Sept. 26 column.
Carr suggests he was pulled out for financial reasons. If that’s the case, and The Times isn’t willing to spend money to cover the catastrophe in its entirety, who will?
My hope is the national news outlets will return to the Gulf Coast and expand on the important stories unearthed by Katrina: racial problems in the United States, poverty, government inadequacies, the national economic impact of such disasters and stories of hope. Everyone in America needs to learn from this disaster, not just those who live there.
But then again, does the general public really want to talk about that stuff, or does it want to know why Kenny Chesney and Renee Zellweger couldn’t make their marriage work?
Which brings us back to the bigger question: What is news? Is it what people want to hear or what they need to hear?
I guess the answer depends on how much of a journalistic risk you are willing to take.
Who’s to blame
Not long after Katrina made landfall, the blame game began in earnest: New Orleans officials blamed the federal government for not having a better plan in place; evacuees blamed public officials for putting them in unbearable living conditions for a week; many throughout the country blamed those who refused to leave when they were told.
And, of course, many blamed the media for unfair and inaccurate coverage.
The Los Angeles Times reported on Sept. 27 that rumors of rape, violence and estimates of the dead took the place of accurate information — and the media magnified the problem.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that body counts had been inflated and unconfirmed sniper attacks were among the examples of myths that were treated as fact.
And there has been no verification that sharks were swimming through the flooded city, although it was reported by more than one news organization.
The sad truth is, very little of what was reported was 100 percent accurate, and it almost never is when it comes to breaking news of this magnitude.
In a hurry to file the latest news, reporters are forced to go on what officials and witnesses tell them.
At its worst, this type of reporting can perpetuate fear and hopelessness. But I stop short of blaming the journalists. They were reporting on what they saw and what they were told. And, after all, that is their job.
Journalism is an imperfect science, and we all learn as we go.
The next time we are faced with these circumstances, let’s hope we apply the lessons learned from Katrina. Because if we don’t, then we deserve every bit of the blame we get.
Joe Skeel is editor of Quill Magazine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (317) 927-8000.