Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina

It cost the nation 1,836 confirmed dead and an estimated $80 billion or more in property damage.  It inundated one of America’s greatest cities, leaving parts of it uninhabitable for years.  Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff called it “probably the worst catastrophe, or set of catastrophes” in United States history.

This was Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in August, 2005, with winds as high as 175 MPH and a storm surge that reached as far as 20 miles inland at some points.

There are many aspects of Katrina and its aftermath that warrant attention.  One is the role of the mass media.  How well or poorly did the media do their job reporting on Katrina?

The media are fun to bash.  Like lawyers, politicians, and liberal Hollywood figures, regardless of what they do or say, the kneejerk reaction of much of the public will be to condemn.  Sometimes that’s warranted and sometimes it’s not, but by now it’s a reflex.

So let’s start off by stating that by and large the mass media did an admirable job on Katrina.  They gave timely and frequent warnings of the approaching storm, they preempted other programming to stay on top of the story and keep the world informed as the tragedy played out, they urged greater rescue and relief action and provided the information as to where it was most needed, and on an individual level many journalists put themselves in harm’s way to do their job.  For the most part they conducted themselves in a responsible, professional manner in trying circumstances.

But that’s not to say there are not aspects of the media coverage that warrant criticism, as we look back now and take stock.  Here are a few issues worth pondering when we consider how the media performed, and how they could do better in the future:

* Overemphasis on the here and now

“News” is what’s “new,” what’s current.  Sometimes that works fine and sometimes it doesn’t.  In the case of Katrina, the media devoted enormous time and resources to reporting about the hurricane, but it was almost all from a few days before it struck to a few days after, which is when Katrina was “new.”

Critics would say that that kind of focus misses hugely important elements of the story.  In the years preceding Katrina, there was precious little mention in the mass media of such matters as the woefully inadequate levee system in New Orleans, the influence of the oil industry on the loss of huge chunks of Louisiana wetlands (that provide a buffer against storms), and how adequate or inadequate are the evacuation plans of major American cities.

These angles were pursued to some extent when Katrina struck, but they were important all along.  In fact, had they been pursued earlier, maybe something could have been done about them.  Publicizing that the barn door is open at the same time you publicize that the horse got loose, is nowhere near as helpful as publicizing that the barn door is open prior to the horse getting loose.

Then in the aftermath of Katrina, while there was certainly some followup, and some effort to not abandon the victims and abandon the story, it is in the nature of the mass media and its public to crave to “move on.”  With the passage of time should come more information and a greater perspective to assess it and learn from it dispassionately.  Instead, the stories got less and less frequent, and they played to smaller and smaller audiences.

As usual, the media were much better with the present than with the past or future.

* Inadequate fact checking of juicy stories

Sensationalism sells, and too often this tempts the media to cut corners, to go with sensational stories that only might be or probably are true, whereas they’d wait for much more confirmation before running similarly uncertain mundane stories.

In the case of Katrina, that meant that numerous myths, rumors, lies, and errors made it into the mass media that might not have if they had been more meticulous about fact checking and confirmation.  Reports of widespread murders and rapes in New Orleans as civil order broke down turned out to be largely false.  While conditions at the Superdome were certainly harrowing in some respects, sensational stories such as of the gang rape and throat slitting of a seven year old were made up out of whole cloth and passed on to the media, who duly reported them.

* Stereotyping, often unconscious and subtle

For most of the mass media at least, the days of blatantly racist and sexist reporting are largely a thing of the past.  However, biases of that kind of a more subtle nature can still find their way into the media.  Some critics saw evidence of just this phenomenon in the coverage of Katrina.

One incident that received a lot of attention, for example, is when two very similar wire service photos appeared during Katrina, but with importantly different captions.  Both showed survivors wading through flood waters, carrying bags full of food and other items from flooded out stores.  But the one of a black person described him as “looting” the items, whereas the one of a white person described him as “finding” them.

Now that one incident proves nothing.  Maybe it was a fluke.  Maybe in a hundred cases, fifty would go that way and fifty would go the other way.  Maybe the people depicted in the photos really were engaged in different activities.  (That last in fact was the explanation ultimately offered by the photographers who’d submitted the photos and their captions.  The black man had been witnessed going into a store and helping himself to supplies.  The white person had found supplies floating loose in the floodwaters.)

But it’s worth investigating further and thinking through just what biases of that kind -often unconscious – we as a society have, and the mass media have.  Are we more apt to jump to certain conclusions, interpret what we see a certain way, when a person is black versus white?  Or male versus female?  Or young versus old?  Or poor versus wealthy?

Especially in a situation where everything is rushed, and the media are reporting without reviewing and second guessing everything first, these biases can come to the fore.

In these and other areas, the mass media’s performance during Katrina will be talked about and analyzed for a long time to come, hopefully in a constructive way that will lead to improvement.