Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy

The wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with each retelling that an infant’s body had been found in a trash can, that sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through the business district, that hundreds of bodies had been stacked in the Superdome basement.

“It doesn’t take anything to start a rumor around here,” Louisiana National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the Superdome relief effort. “There’s 20,000 people in here. Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone’s ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor and the rumor isn’t the same thing it was when you started it.”

Follow-up reporting has discredited reports of a 7-year-old being raped and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang members attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a freezer at the Convention Center.

Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.

Fox News, a day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began, issued an “alert” as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports of “robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness.”

The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its lead news story, 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. Gunfire crackled in the distance.”

The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.

The tabloid Ottawa Sun reported unverified accounts of “a man seeking help gunned down by a National Guard soldier” and “a young man run down and then shot by a New Orleans police officer.”

London’s Evening Standard invoked the future-world fantasy film “Mad Max” to describe the scene and threw in a “Lord of the Flies” allusion for good measure.

Televised images and photographs affirmed the widespread devastation in one of America’s most celebrated cities.

“I don’t think you can overstate how big of a disaster New Orleans is,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a Florida school for professional journalists. “But you can imprecisely state the nature of the disaster. Then you draw attention away from the real story, the magnitude of the destruction, and you kind of undermine the media’s credibility.” —Susannah Rosenblatt and James RaineyKatrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy (LA Times (registration))

The article continues with a discussion of how race may have affected what one source called “rumor-mongering”.

Up to now, I’ve mostly read reports in which the media congratulated itself for speaking the truth to power — that is, using the images of the destruction to contrast with what the administration was telling them.

It looks like, in some cases at any rate, the media were too quick to publish reports of chaos. The coverage I read was pretty clear that the reports were unconfirmed, but politicians started repeating those reports, and other organizations started reporting those second-hand comments.

Katrina was a ready-made TV story, with stunning images and a lingering after-story, made more tantalizing by the fact that so little news was getting out.