With winds reaching more than 150 miles per hour, Hurricane Katrina devastated the southern United States coastline in late August of this year. It caused billions of dollars in damage. It displaced more than 1 million people from their homes and left an estimated 5 million people without electrical power. Nearly 90,000 square miles turned into official federal disaster zones.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff referred to Katrina and the post-storm flooding as “probably the worst catastrophe, or set of catastrophes … in the history of the country.”
But the storm also took its toll on a more unexpected victim: the substance and quality of news media content.
Looking back at post-storm coverage, experts discuss what can happen when journalists get too close, either physically or emotionally, to the subjects and situations they report on. The line between fact and rumor blurs. Isolated incidents are morphed into everyday events and trends. Certain segments of the population are ignored while others are pigeonholed into stereotypes based on their class and race.
And journalists might neglect what some experts consider their most defining purpose: to maintain a skeptical eye and act as a watchdog even in the face of extreme tragedy and intense emotion.
Two days after the storm hit New Orleans, Roma Khanna was sent to the city to cover the aftermath for the Houston Chronicle. She said that before she left, she was prepared for the worst.
“I came in with the impression that it was going to be mad chaos,” she said.
But when she arrived in the city, she was met with nearly deserted streets with the exception of a few people riding on bicycles. It was a scenario far from the dangerous conditions she was expecting after hearing and watching accounts of the aftermath on television.
“It wasn’t quite how it was made out to be,” she said, “There were certainly pockets of danger. I think broadcast media made it very personal. Just because you feel like you are in danger doesn’t mean that is the reality.”
This is a problem that arises, experts say, from journalists getting too close to the situation they are covering: stories built on subjective feelings and emotions rather than based on facts and objective observations. When in such an intense situation, such as New Orleans after Katrina, sometimes journalists forget to step back, maintain a skeptical eye, ask questions and maintain accountability.
“The good side is that the journalists raised attention of the failure of officials to act properly,” said Robert Lichter, the president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs and a professor of communication at George Mason University in Virginia. “The bad side is they were carriers of rumors that caused officials to act incorrectly. I think those two things are linked.”
During the aftermath of Katrina, when thousands of New Orleans refugees took shelter in the Louisiana Superdome, reports of rapes and killing happening inside the arena flooded news coverage. Some media outlets ran stories about piles of corpses kept inside of the food freezers at the city’s convention center. Incidents such as people shooting at helicopters, Lichter said, were treated as ongoing trends -– instead of isolated events.
But as of late September, after the Superdome had been inspected, there were no piles of corpses found. In fact, the state Department of Health and Hospitals stated that officials found only 10 people dead inside the Superdome and only four at the convention center. Officials also clarified there were no reports of sexual assault at all.
Yet, even without hard statistics or facts to back up the claims of killings and rapes, these stories managed their way into media coverage and into the mind of the public.
“The job of journalists is to step in and sort out rumor from fact,” Lichter said. “Not be part of the rumor-mongering process.”
Aside from these erroneous accounts, other falsehoods managed to show up in national news coverage as early as one week after the storm. Soon after the hurricane died down, journalists used statements from New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to predict a death toll reaching up to 10,000 people.
“I think that could have been knocked down pretty quickly, even long before the bodies were counted.” Khanna said. “People were willing to go with what the mayor said without enough skepticism. Hopefully, they will have more skepticism in the future.”
A month after Katrina, the actual number of casualties was only one-tenth of what Nagin predicted. It wasn’t until early October that the death toll in New Orleans reached more than 1,000 -– an amount that doesn’t come close to Nagin’s estimation that journalists used without any reservations for weeks following the storm.
This idea of asking questions and maintaining skepticism is crucial to the role of a journalist, Lichter said. Even in times of crisis and disaster, he said, journalists must maintain enough composition and not get so emotionally involved that those responsibilities get put aside.
“You don’t fall in love with your role as adversary,” he said. “Fall in love with your role as a critic. That leads you to be just as one-sided as the reporter who doesn’t question authority at all.”
Under normal circumstance, reporting with a skeptical eye and questioning officials can be a relatively uncomplicated task for many journalists. But the circumstances in New Orleans after Katrina were anything but trouble-free.
The city was devastated. Khanna said the lack of modern-day conveniences such as electricity or gasoline made reporting and writing a daunting task.
“For me, and for a lot of people, logistics were really just difficult: charging your laptop and charging your phones, sending your stories –- basic, traditional things you take for granted,” Khanna said. “Figuring out how to keep gas in your car.”
The scarcity of electricity also kept many journalists from being able to keep up with other media outlets’ coverage of the hurricane. Khanna said that for the 2 1/2 weeks she was in New Orleans, she was unable to watch a television or see the news. Many reporters worked in almost total isolation from the outside journalistic world. For many journalists, the emotion became too much to suppress after living in these conditions along with the victims for weeks and witnessing the devastation all around them.
“I certainly saw people crying on air, breaking down on air, due to the overwhelming emotion and the enormity of it,” said David Kurpius, the associate dean at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. “There were many more breaking down in the hallways. We actually went and got counselors.”
Even though journalists typically are taught to not get involved or express their feelings in the news, many reporters agree that in situations such as New Orleans, it is only human to become emotionally affected by what is going on around the city.
“There are those who say that you should be able to separate yourself from that,” said Kim LeDuff, an assistant broadcast journalism professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, which is about 100 miles outside of New Orleans. “Seeing some of the things that they saw, they can’t help but be emotionally connected to them.”
Lichter offered a different solution. He said that sometimes becoming too emotional can deter journalists from doing their jobs and questioning the facts officials give them. Instead of letting emotion get in the way of their work, Lichter said, reporters could use their sadness or anger as motivation to discover truths such as the reasoning behind the blunders of the federal and local governments’ relief efforts.
“You can question officials and look for the truth behind officials’ falsehood without becoming so emotionally involved that you become a player instead of a referee,” he said. “It is good journalism to dig beneath the official story, but that doesn’t require showing emotion. It requires channeling your emotion into getting the real story.”
Aside from the emotional aspect, becoming overly involved and close to a situation also might hinder a journalist’s ability to see the bigger picture, Lichter said. Although journalists in New Orleans were able to witness various events immediately around them, at times it was difficult for some to grasp how different incidents fit together and how they were significance.
“When you are down in the event, you see what is going on around you, but you don’t necessarily understand the larger meaning,” Lichter said. “You can call attention to individual problems, but you don’t understand the reason for it so you can cast blame wrongly.”
This problem became apparent with the media’s coverage of those either unable or unwilling to leave New Orleans before and after the storm. Many of the journalists stationed in the city were flown in from other states. As a result, they didn’t have a large understanding of the history and demographics of the area.
“This is a situation of parachute journalism in our county where you have journalists who don’t know enough about it to know a good angle,” LeDuff said.
The disparity in the city was not so much an issue of race, LeDuff said, but an issue of class. New Orleans does have a large black population, and many of these people are upper- to middle-class homeowners. But most of those particular individuals were able to leave the city before Katrina hit. Many of the poorer inhabitants of the city, LeDuff said, either didn’t have the money or the transportation necessary to leave. As a result, the wealthier segments of the black population in the city nearly were invisible in post-storm the media coverage. Because many poorer, lower-class black residents couldn’t leave the city, journalists easily obtained images of them and used the pictures broadly in national and local media. Doing this, LeDuff said, inevitably pigeonholed individuals of color into a class of low socioeconomic status.
“That is all they saw. Most middle-class, upper-middle-class African Americans were able to get out of the city,” LeDuff said. “Unfortunately, those are who got left behind. Media loves imagery and to play on our emotions. Those were the images that were left.”
Not only did this type of coverage forward a stereotype of minorities in the United States, but it also made it more difficult for certain people outside the city to relate to those affected by Katrina.
“If I am white, middle class or upper-middle class, you didn’t see people like you suffering. It is human nature to feel more of a connection with people like yourself,” LeDuff said. “Had we seen more diversity in coverage, it would have been more appealing and viewed as more important to a wider audience.”
However, there might be a more positive end to the media’s coverage of race, Kurpius said. Even though many news stories and images were racially lopsided, they did bring to light the issue of poverty in New Orleans. While this issue currently is in the forefront of media coverage, some experts doubt how long it will stay there. Continuing covering this issue after Katrina, Kurpius said, will be the true test of the quality of journalism involved.
“The issue was there beforehand, and no one paid attention to it, and now it is brought to the surface by this tragedy,” Kurpius said. “My fear is that journalists in particular and viewers and readers are only going to pay attention to it for this brief moment, and then the story fades away. And that is unethical.”
But the disparity between classes in New Orleans is not an anomaly. Racial and class inequalities exist in big cities across the nation. In the future, Kurpius said, hopefully the media will not need a natural disaster to sufficiently report on this problem.
“It will be interesting to watch and see if the news organizations do the heavy lifting and cover that story in the next months and years to add some depth and perspective,” Kurpius said. “This is not a Louisiana problem. It is a national problem.”
Not seeing or reporting on these larger trends and relying on rumors for news content are just two possible consequences of being too close to a situation. Lichter said journalists should learn from these errors and figure out how to separate themselves just enough to effectively cover trends and question officials.
To do this, Lichter said journalists shouldn’t be too quick to report on something for the sake of getting a story out. During Katrina’s aftermath, there was high pressure from news organizations to have the first available coverage. This compelled reporters to seek out stories, even if a quality and factual story might not be available. In the end, this pressure led to the problems of reporting on rumors, not looking at the bigger picture and letting emotion take precedence over being a skeptical observer.
“You need to recognize your limitations,” Lichter said. “If you hear rumors, and you can’t confirm them, don’t turn the rumors into fact by reporting on it. If there is nothing to report, don’t create something. Learn to live with the frustration of being so close to the story that you can’t get the larger story.”
Scheduled to graduate this December, Katie O’Keefe is a senior journalism major at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind.