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September 28, 2005

Superdome Reporting: Fair, Balanced, and False

Many journalists put themselves in potentially dangerous situations and worked beyond their physical limits to provide round-the-clock coverage of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. But now it is becoming clear that courage, tousled hair, breathlessness, and good work ethic are no substitutes for journalistic standards. It is also clear that rumor posing as fact resulted in egregious charges and vastly sensationalized reports throughout the media.

As Doug reported below, The Los Angeles Times reported yesterday that the serious and most alarming reports from the Superdome and the Convention Center—of bodies piled high, mass rapes, children with slit throats—were simply not true. They were rumors that initially broadcast media, and then without further investigation, print media reported as fact.

As further evidence that Mayor Nagin and other Louisiana officials are criminally incompetent, one media excuse is that the mayor and others were making public statements about the horrendous—-but evidently fictional—-abuses. The public officials may have picked up some of their information from media reports; some media outlets took courage in reporting on the conditions because of what officials said.

The Associated Press said today:

The ugliest reports — children with slit throats, women dragged off and raped, corpses piling up in the basement — soon became a searing image of post-Katrina New Orleans.

The stories were told by residents trapped inside the Superdome and convention center and were repeated by public officials. Many news organizations, including The Associated Press, carried the witness accounts and official pronouncements, and in some cases later repeated the claims as fact, without attribution.

But now, a month after the chaos subsided, police are re-examining the reports and finding that many of them have little or no basis in fact.

They have no official reports of rape and no eyewitnesses to sexual assault. The state Department of Health and Hospitals counted 10 dead at the Superdome and four at the convention center. Only two of those are believed to have been murdered.

So there is mutual culpability. However, it is the responsibility of journalists to ferret out the truth; those who failed to do so bear primary responsibility in the reporting of terrible atrocities that did not occur; reporting that damaged the international image of the United States, that prompted FEMA’s refusal to send its volunteers with aid into what was being reported as a war zone, and that began the slanders against the President.

It is a great example of the importance in modern society of accurate and independent reporting. I teach college journalism classes and I have a wonderful example for tonight’s classes of why we drill the importance of fundamentals in reporting—multiple sources, constant attribution of unsubstantiated statements, remaining personally uninvolved in the stories. These and many other principles were ignored by overly tired, alarmed, and emotionally distraught reporters who were fed bad information and broadcast it to the world.

Posted by Jim at September 28, 2005 07:44 AM

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I think attributing all of this to verly tired, alarmed, and emotionally distraught reporters ignores the the very real possibility that they ran with these rumors because they made an imperfect disaster response seem worse than the disaster itself.

If the truth had been told all along, would FEEMA have a new boss or would Michael still have a job?

The bottom line is murder and mayhem made for better stories than people sitting quietly in a stadium waiting for relief.

Posted by: Stephen Macklin at September 28, 2005 08:56 AM

To clarify - the above comment is not intended to imply a direct conspiracy against the government or Michael Brown.

Posted by: Stephen Macklin at September 28, 2005 08:59 AM

It certainly made for better ratings.

Posted by: Fran at September 28, 2005 01:53 PM