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In many ways, journalists struggle to find the story

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published September 2, 2005

Two children raped at the Superdome in New Orleans. Thirty dead in a collapsed apartment complex in Biloxi, Miss. The government deliberately breaching the levee outside a poor New Orleans neighborhood to direct floodwaters away from downtown and the French Quarter.

Reporters have heard stories like these repeatedly while attempting to cover the historic devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

But separating fact from fiction has proved a growing challenge for journalists working from inside the catastrophe. They are isolated by a lack of electricity, phone access and mobility - no different from the public that depends on reliable information and government officials, who are expected to supply it.

"We've never domestically faced a story like this with so many components," said Jack Womack, a senior vice president at CNN Newsgroup, who compared covering Katrina's aftermath to working in a war zone. "You hear a lot of strange things on the ground ... but you use the cameras to show people these things ... so people can see at home and judge for themselves."

Womack estimated CNN has about 140 staffers in the area covering the disaster. "The Row," a group of up to a dozen staffers, reviews reports and helps verify facts before passing them on to viewers, he said.

At the Associated Press, deputy managing editor for national news Kristin Gazlay can quickly tick off the stories, reported by some news outlets, that they resisted: A prison break in New Orleans. Martial law declared in the city. Abandoned attempts to shore up the town's levees. All eventually proved false.

"We don't rush with anything before we have time to apply logic to it," she said, noting that AP often faces pointed questions from clients when TV outlets report incidents they have not yet verified. "Things take on the weight of reality when they appear on TV, and people ask "Why aren't you reporting on this?' But it's not worth rushing to the wire with a story that turns out to be wrong."

The story Gazlay recalled reporting that was likely incorrect: the death toll of those killed in the Biloxi apartment complex, which was probably fewer than 30 people. The source seemed reliable - a named county official - showing how tenuous information can be in a disaster area.

The AP now has about 50 staffers in the area, reporting for print, radio, TV and online. Amid verified reports of armed robberies and carjackings, staffers never venture out alone or at night and plan reporting forays into devastated areas carefully.

Stories of bodies piled in roadways and looters shooting at police also highlight an important fact: Truth here can seem as outrageous as fiction.

"We're finding today that we're reporting all of these incredible things, and so many of them are true," Gazlay said. "It's Third World devastation in a First World country."

Sometimes, just reporting the news is a tremendous challenge. In Biloxi, Knight Ridder assistant vice president of news Bryan Monroe led a group of the chain's staffers to the Sun Herald newspaper just before Katrina hit to keep it publishing.

With about 27 staffers from other Knight Ridder newspapers bolstering about half the Sun Herald's 50 staffers, the group has succeeded, handing out thousands of copies by hand to local residents starved for information.

"Normally, when you hear a rumor, you'd pick up a cell phone and check it out.... But here, cell phones don't work and radios don't work," said Monroe, who noted the headline in today's edition was a simple plea: "Help Us Now."

"The first day, we made decisions on what to cover based on how much gas we had in our cars," Monroe said. "We have no bathrooms, I haven't taken a shower in four days, and dinner is peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It's the most amazing story I have covered in my life."

As news coverage plays out, bloggers and other critics can help scrutinize news coverage for anyone with online access, particularly regarding the role of race and class in coverage.

Some have said black subjects are described as looters, while white subjects are not. Others say news outlets don't often note many people were unable to evacuate because they were too poor, too sick or too old.

"All of those are fair criticisms, (but) we're asking those questions," said CNN's Womack. "Pictures are telling the story here. We don't sit around as a news organization and hold debates. We're just trying to get the story covered."

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