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Hurricane Katrina

Journalists' outrage visible in coverage

Reporters react pointedly to witnessing the shortcomings of the official reaction to the hurricane.

Published September 8, 2005

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For Campbell Brown, the anger peaked when she reached the New Orleans Convention Center.

In the area for days covering the landfall and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for NBC News, Brown had seen plenty of devastation. But the sight of 20,000 people trucked to the facility amid promises of provisions and comfortable shelter, only to find nothing, made the reporter's blood boil.

"Watching the power struggles play out between New Orleans officials and the state and federal government has been beyond frustrating. ... They let the bureaucracy get in the way of saving lives," said Brown, the anchor on NBC's weekend Today show, who grew up in Louisiana. "A lot of people died, I believe unnecessarily. And there has to be some accountability."

Brown's angry demands for accountability have been echoed in the words of many correspondents covering Katrina's aftermath, fueling a pointed turn in news coverage which has found journalists consistently challenging officials - often with undisguised emotion - on bungled relief efforts.

There was ABC's Ted Koppel dismantling Federal Emergency Management Agency head Michael Brown in a blistering Nightline interview. And CNN anchor Anderson Cooper chiding Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., for congratulating Congress on its early return last week. ("For the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi," Cooper said. "There are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.")

Now journalists' anger has pushed officials into playing what former President George Bush derisively called the "blame game" - a deluge of finger pointing at news conferences and interviews.

"What we've seen in the past week is the enormous journalism gap between covering policymakers and policy-feelers - those who are impacted by politicians' decisions," said Matthew Felling, of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "Journalists are extremely affected by the people they cover."

Stuck in the same deprived, unsafe environment as hurricane victims, journalists have adopted the same sort of emotional bonding with subjects seen in some reporters embedded with the military during the Iraq war - reflecting the dismay of thousands who think the slow government response has cost lives.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, compared the effect to the way journalists responded to the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War and Watergate.

"I don't think one hurricane has the same galvanizing effect of a generation of incidents," said Rosenstiel, who counters concerns about objectivity by noting that a reporter's ultimate responsibility is to verify facts through skeptical examination. "But (after Katrina) you had street reporting suggesting that the official, whitewashed version of some things were untrue. And that changed the tone of coverage."

Paul Clark, a Washington, D.C., expert on crisis management for the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, noted that state, local and federal officials' response to the disaster violated many key concepts of responding to a crisis.

"One of the first concepts is to accept blame if it applies ... people forgive mistakes, but they don't forgive excuses," Clark said. "Make full disclosure of the facts, but don't speculate on things you don't know ... like death estimates. After this, Americans may stop to think that there is no safety net for Americans who are least privileged and most affected by federal policy."

"Is this a turning point in coverage? I hope so," Brown said. "This crisis may well define the Bush administration ... and we're going to be covering this story for a long time."

[Last modified September 8, 2005, 01:50:14]

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