Media outlets exaggerated some of New Orleans' woes

Published September 28, 2005

It's the story of the moment regarding coverage of Hurricane Katrina: The news media likely passed along exaggerated tales of lawlessness in New Orleans in the storm's early aftermath, repeating accounts of murder, rapes and child molestations often delivered by misinformed public officials and traumatized hurricane victims.

But despite a slew of recent stories outlining the fact that the death rates, rapes and murders there have totalled far fewer than initially reported - the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, New York Times , Los Angeles Times and NBC News have all reported on this issue in recent days - experts say they don't expect media credibility to take a huge hit.

Mostly because the corrections have come from many of the same news outlets that did the initial reporting.

"I see this as an admirable amount of self-examination ... (the press) has been very quick at calling public attention to their own dirty laundry," said Steve Lovelady, managing editor of CJR Daily, the media criticism Web site operated by Columbia Journalism Review . "You don't see FEMA saying to the public, here's seven ways we screwed up."

Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, agreed. "The media's credibility takes a short-term hit with these public corrections," he said. "But ... the media is becoming very skillful at policing itself - which will build its accuracy in the future."

On Sept. 6, the Times-Picayune published a story in which a National Guardsman pointed out bodies at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. The guardsman said 30 to 40 other bodies were stored in the center's freezer. But on Monday, the newspaper noted just four corpses were recovered there.

The Los Angeles Times said Tuesday it "adopted a breathless tone" in its lead news story on evacuations at the Louisiana Superdome, "reporting that National Guard troops "took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee."'

"The guy who wrote that story is a friend. ... I hope he hasn't seen my story yet," said Jim Rainey, a media writer at the Los Angeles Times who co-wrote the Tuesday story. "The reporters and the editors can get caught up in the emotion of these stories, sometimes as much as the victims do. You're sorting hundreds of pieces of information and doing it under tremendous deadline pressure."

One blogger criticized National Public Radio reporter John Burnett for passing along the widely reported story of a young girl, estimated to be 13, who was dead and possibly raped in a bathroom at the Convention Center. The Times-Picayune reported Monday that despite numerous rumors about rapes the newspaper now could not confirm any such incidents with officials.

NPR managing editor Bill Marimow defended Burnett, calling him a "superb reporter" who provided "excellent" first-person observations.

"At the convention center, it was extremely dangerous ... not the kind of place one would venture into and begin searching for dead bodies," Marimow said. "If you have four or five credible eyewitnesses who tell you they saw something, if you subject that to high standards of proof, you report it - provided you attribute it."

And, as the Times-Picayune and Los Angeles Times stories noted, sometimes the misinformation came from public officials.

Both newspapers mentioned a Sept. 6 appearance by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and then-police Superintendent Eddie Compass on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, where the men talked about hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people, including babies, inside the Superdome. During the show, they insisted the facility was so unsafe, even after evacuation, that Winfrey could only spend five minutes inside.

In the Los Angeles Times story, Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss blamed the reporting errors on a lack of telephone service and the fact that evacuees were largely poor black people, which fed into stereotypical assumptions about animalistic behavior.

But CJR's Lovelady resisted that thesis. "There were two black officials saying this stuff ... and they weren't just anyone, they were the mayor and the police chief," he said of Nagin and Compass. "When you've got the mayor and police chief saying it, you can't just decide, I'm not going to write about this."

There have been times when the debunking has been tougher. On NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, host Tim Russert interviewed Jefferson Parish president Aaron Broussard, who had broken down in tears during a Sept. 4 appearance while describing how a parish employee's mother died after days of waiting for federal help.

Russert replayed his comments Sunday, then presented evidence unearthed by MSNBC and several bloggers indicating the woman died the day Katrina hit. Broussard responded angrily: "Somebody wants to nitpick a man's tragic loss of a mother ... are you kidding?"

Felling said Russert crossed the line from debunking myths to insensitivity. "(Broussard's comments) deserved an on-air correction, they did not deserve an on-air interrogation."

NPR's Marimow noted that journalists will likely be searching for the truth for a long while.

"Daily journalism is ... always subject to amplification and clarification," he said. "I suspect people are going to be amplifying the record on this for the rest of our lives."

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.