How the media shaped Katrina

Meet the press: Keyontay Dimes, 6, a refugee from a New Orleans suburb, was interviewed Sept. 9, 2005, at Camp Edwards in Bourne, Mass. Her family and 200 other refugees were moved from the gulf coast into an intermediate housing facility on a military base in Bourne.
Meet the press: Keyontay Dimes, 6, a refugee from a New Orleans suburb, was interviewed Sept. 9, 2005, at Camp Edwards in Bourne, Mass. Her family and 200 other refugees were moved from the gulf coast into an intermediate housing facility on a military base in Bourne.

A reflection five years later: Outraged reporters pleaded for help, became helpers themselves. They also got basic facts wrong, wallowed in racial and disaster cliches.

Posted: September 07, 2010

Last week saw the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the most destructive storm in U.S. history. It hit the gulf coast Aug. 29, 2005, leaving more than 1,800 dead and $81 billion in property damage.

Katrina the disaster was also Katrina the media story - a silver lining with a storm cloud attached. "It brought all the technology of live coverage to bear," says Richard J. Goedkoop, associate professor of communication at La Salle University. Journalists did some heroic things on behalf of victims.

But it was also a study in the pitfalls of herd reporting. "Disaster myth ran amok," says Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Coverage missed glaring truths and may have perpetuated stereotypes that hurt victims. It was, she says, a crisis of "framing" the disaster through ready-made cliches.

High-tech pyrotechnics. Since 1980, when CNN, the first all-news-all-the-time channel, went live, many wars and disasters have challenged the 24/7 media, from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami of 2004.

Katrina was different. It was right here at home. And we could see it coming across the gulf, hanging fire, then wheeling its malevolent eye northward to New Orleans. Mapped and measured in a wealth of satellite photos and weather stories, Katrina was a media star long before it made landfall.

When it did, we saw long shots of burst levees, shots from helicopter, boat, handheld cameras, aerial shots panning miles of devastated coast, exhausted reporters surrounded by refugees. In the sky, on the water, in the Superdome, the TV eye followed the story from New Orleans to Biloxi, Miss., to Houston to Washington and back.

Goedkoop says, "It was instantaneous, because it had to be, unedited because events were happening so fast."

Advocacy and helping. The extremities of Katrina flushed reporters out of their comfort zones. Many arrived well ahead of relief efforts. Outraged at the slow governmental response, some became advocates for the victims.

CNN's Anderson Cooper, reporting from devastated Bay St. Louis, Miss., cried out, "People, it is desperate here," and demanded of U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D., La.), "Do you get the anger that's out here?" National Public Radio's Robert Siegel challenged then-Department of Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, who was downplaying bad news: "But, Mr. Secretary . . . these aren't rumors."

Weather Channel storm-tracker Jim Cantore describes the challenges and dangers he and his crew faced: "We started with Katrina's first landfall in Fort Lauderdale. We grunted it, we drove, all the way from South Florida to Gulfport [La.]. . . . Some of us left all our stuff in our cars, and next morning, they'd all gone under. I had a guy who had to ride the storm out in his satellite truck."

As the waters rose, Cantore and crew helped Navy Seabees move 450 residents of the flood-threatened Armed Forces Retirement Home in Gulfport, plus food and medical equipment, to a higher floor. "At one point," he says, "it isn't about TV anymore."

Goedkoop says, "The Katrina coverage shows the agenda-setting function of the media at its best, getting attention where it was needed. You have to applaud people like Shepard Smith for going against the grain at Fox, even berating the Bush administration."

Smith stood on an exit off Interstate 10 across from the Superdome and lamented the misery of the stranded thousands. Near the Gretna Bridge out of New Orleans, blocked by armed police, Smith reported: "There's lots and lots of rescue workers in town, there's lots of food, but there are lots of people not getting it. Why is that? I wish I knew."

Goedkoop calls it "important coverage that helped save lives and start the healing process."

Jennifer Day agrees. She's director of communications and public relations for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. Tourism employs 70,000 in the city, she says, so "it was difficult to see those images of devastation, and we are concerned about the brand damage."

But Day also credits the coverage for helping attract 2.2 million volunteers to the Big Easy since 2005: "They've done everything from rebuilding houses to raising money for health clinics to teaching with Teach for America."

Not just a natural disaster. Media coverage of Katrina, however, has also left frustration and disappointment. The flooding was portrayed as a natural disaster - when it was largely the result of years of bungling by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Harry Shearer, humorist, musician, actor, and radio-show host, has produced the documentary The Big Uneasy, about how bad levees, canals, and planning helped ensure a disaster. "The story was hiding in plain sight," he says. "It was all there in public records. You could find it by Googling maybe four words."

Shearer ponders the mystery that, even when all the cameras are on, the big story slips by: "It's like they're all staring at the sun and the center of their visual field is burnt out, so they see only the periphery. It's also the herd mentality."

Wildfire rumors tainted early reports. Jordan Flaherty, a New Orleans-based author, says, "The great injustice was how the coverage changed from sympathy for the victims to the depiction of those who remained in the city as armed criminals and street gangs."

Tierney says, "There were rumors of shooters, looters, arsonists, rapists, marauding gangs, terribly ugly rumors about the Superdome. It became a real echo chamber. Police were reported to be firing on crowds from helicopters. . . . None of it true."

Tierney, who appeared on PBS's The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer at the time, says: "Their first question was about looting and lawlessness. I said, 'We're going to find it's being overstated.' " And it was. When troops searched the 39,000 people at the Superdome for weapons, they found about 50, plus four bodies, only one of which was thought to be a homicide.

"It was reported New Orleans was under martial law. It was never under martial law," Tierney says. "Yet some reported police were authorized to shoot to kill."

Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, leader of Joint Task Force Katrina, fought the hysteria, berating locked-and-loaded National Guard troops rolling toward the Superdome: "Put those damn weapons down. . . . Get those goddamn weapons down."

Katrina was portrayed as a black disaster, when poor and working-class people of all races were left stranded. Lolis Eric Elie, a writer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and coproducer of the documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, says that where blacks were concerned, the media failed to connect poverty with the urban African American experience.

"America pretended to be surprised that there existed a pocket of poverty in our country so deep that people were unable to leave even when their lives depended on it," he says. "New Orleans was painted as exceptional when, in the matter of African American poverty, we are in step with too much of the rest of our nation, both rural and urban."

Instead, black became connected with criminal. "It's easy to do," says Tierney. "Right after reports of looting, you're shown an image of a black man carrying a loaded garbage bag. But in that bag, maybe he's just carrying everything he has in the world."

Media-stoked myths of lawlessness, social chaos, and violence may have hurt relief efforts and cast a pall on a city trying to rebuild.

"No doubt, that legacy is still with us today," says Flaherty. "The Saints' victory in the Super Bowl" in February "was the first time in years many Americans saw the people of New Orleans as anything but lawless victims."

Day acknowledges the dark side of the coverage, but says it made New Orleans into "the face of the modern American city - and I think the whole world learned from us, in terms of education reform, governmental reform, community rebuilding.

"We can't stop people from telling our stories," Day says, "the good, the bad, the happy, the sad - that is our reality. But what the storm did is it shocked locals and the world into recognizing they had been taking a great city for granted. There are too many people who love this place to let it fade into history."

Contact John Timpane at 215-854-4406, or

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