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September 27, 2005

Playing the Rumor Game

Ever play the Rumor game, where you whisper one thing to someone, and by the time it gets around the room it's quite different? Well, looks like politicians and news organizations have been playing it in New Orleans.

Maj. Ed Bush recalled how he stood in the bed of a pickup truck in the days after Hurricane Katrina, struggling to help the crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome separate fact from fiction. Armed only with a megaphone and scant information, he might have been shouting into, well, a hurricane.

The National Guard spokesman's accounts about rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the roar of a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then a frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports.

"It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Bush said Monday of the Superdome.

It started in New Orleans proper, and then, via the magic of modern communications, went worldwide.
The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."

Indeed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

The article mentions Fox and the NY & LA Times in the US, then the Ottawa Sun in Canada and the Evening Standard in England. These are but examples of a news cycle that continued to feed on itself. Some believe race may have played a factor.

Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss cited telephone breakdowns as a primary cause of reporting errors, but said the fact that most evacuees were poor African Americans also played a part.

"If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people," Amoss said, "it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering."

While the media shares in the blame, it certainly didn't help that politicians were feeding the machine.
Some of the hesitation that journalists might have had about using the more sordid reports from the evacuation centers probably fell away when New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts.

Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" a few days after trouble at the Superdome had peaked.

Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the Superdome. And Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing.

All of these folks--politician and reporter alike--are supposed to be a bit more sober and careful about this. In this day of the 24-hour news cycle, getting this hour's scoop is making the media sound more and more like the National Enquirer as they try to outdo each other. But what are the politicians' excuses? Are they bucking for more money, or just looking for sympathy? It may sound like you care when you complain about how children are mistreated, but when you're just passing around unsubstantiated rumors, that's not compassionate; it's irresponsible. The actual facts were less sensational.
State officials this week said their counts of the dead at the city's two largest evacuation points fell far short of early rumors and news reports. Ten bodies were recovered from the Superdome and four from the Convention Center, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

(National Guard officials put the body count at the Superdome at six, saying the other four bodies came from the area around the stadium.)

Of the 841 recorded hurricane-related deaths in Louisiana, four are identified as gunshot victims, Johannessen said. One victim was found in the Superdome but was believed to have been brought there, and one was found at the Convention Center, he added.

And frankly, there's plenty of actual suffering resulting from Katrina that doesn't require embellishing, while also unreported was much of the good news and good work going on.
Relief workers said that while the media hyped criminal activity, plenty of real suffering did occur at the Katrina relief centers.

"The hurricane had just passed, you had massive trauma to the city," said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard.

"No air conditioning, no sewage … it was not a nice place to be. All those people just in there, they were frustrated, they were hot. Out of all that chaos, all of these rumors start flying."

Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron, who headed security at the Superdome, said that for every complaint, "49 other people said, 'Thank you, God bless you.' "

All this hype and frenzy took its toll on the rescue effort as well. Irresponsible words have consequences.
Bush, of the National Guard, said that reports of corpses at the Superdome filtered back to the facility via AM radio, undermining his struggle to keep morale up and maintain order.

"We had to convince people this was still the best place to be," Bush said. "What I saw in the Superdome was just tremendous amounts of people helping people."

But, Bush said, those stories received scant attention in newspapers or on television.

I understand that news is, by one definition, that which is unusual, not the ordinary day-to-day events. However, in a disaster area, everything is unusual and extraordinary. This goes for the good news as well as the bad. Does the good news draw viewers as much as the bad? Perhaps not. However, a balance needs to be struck that was missing from the Katrina coverage. And if indeed more people will listen to bad news than good, then it's as much our collective problem as it is that of the media and the politicians specifically.

Posted by Doug at September 27, 2005 12:32 PM

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