I wrote this for my media class, but it just got me so annoyed, I had to post it ..
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, as the New Orleans levees broke, Americans sat glued to their televisions. The stories that began to emerge from the chaos painted grisly scenes including piles of bodies, rapes and beatings. Help could not be sent to the primarily African-American evacuees as they were shooting at aid helicopters, and both the Ernest N.Morial Convention Center and Louisiana Superdome, which had been acting as a haven for residents, had turned into prisons where the populace was hunted by marauding gangs.
As reports of hundreds of bodies in the Superdome freezers appeared in broadcast, print and online media across the US, Louisiana National Guard Colonel Thomas Beron readied a refrigerated 18-Wheeler and three doctors to begin sorting though and processing the hundreds of bodies. When they arrived what they found was even more of a shock, six dead bodies lay in wait, and of those six, four had died of natural causes, (the other two were an apparent suicide and overdose.) The Convention Center was the only facility where any officials found an apparent murder victim, and even then, just the one. Considering the New Orleans murder rate of 310 murders per year, this was nothing out of the ordinary. Reports of this gross miscount are few and far between in conventional media, however, Blogs and Independent News Sources continue to follow the Post-Katrina findings.
And whatever happened regarding reports of widespread murders and rapes? To date the piles of murdered bodies have not appeared. As for sexual assault, soldiers and police have confirmed the attempted rape of a child. Deputy Police Superintendent Warren Riley stated that “a man tried to sexually assault a young girl but was beaten up by civilians”.
Subsequent investigations of the helicopter shootings reveals similar half truths, as not one representative from the Air Force, Coast Guard, Department of Homeland Security or the Louisiana National Guard was able to substantiate the shooting claims. On the contrary, the stories seem to have emerged from conventional news sources who continued to report more grandiose versions of the tale throughout the day on September 1st. An October 2nd article in the Miami Herald tracked the morphing of the news coverage.
Early the morning of Sept. 1, National Public Radio reported that a Chinook helicopter was shot at. That afternoon, NPR reported that search-and-rescue teams had been shot at. By 5 p.m. Fox, the Chinook had become a Sikorsky. That evening, Keith Olbermann, host of MSNBC's "Countdown," opened the show talking about "an unknown number of residents shooting at and threatening the very people trying to save them." By the next night, U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, D-La., in an MSNBC interview with Tucker Carlson, said matter-of-factly that bus drivers and helicopters were being shot at.
The truly tragic part of this story exists in the repurcussions that followed these reports as members of several rescue crews were told to halt operations until the “shootings” could be substantiated. Therfore, during some of the most crucial moments of the rescue effort, as sick evacuees in medical facilities and people on rooftops waited for help, rescue helicopters sat grounded. The reasoning behind these reports is simple; tragedy and stories of barbarism sell, and during Katrina, there were no end of customers waiting to buy what the media was selling.
In the vein of “tradgedy sells” we also need to look at reporter’s personal motivations in covering the NoLa/Katrina event. A great example comes from CNN's Anderson Cooper, a relative unknown in the news world, who emerged as a voice for the Katrina victims as he sought out stranded refugees, (primarily African American and poor) and offered questions that begged tearful answers. His fate as a prime time journalist was sealed thanks to a lambasting of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu when she began thanking federal officials for their efforts. When people "listen to politicians thanking one another and complimenting each other," he told her, "you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated." This conversation helped shape America’s frame of reference on the tragedy, and also helped boost Cooper to a lead anchor position, as in early November, he was named to replace Aaron Brown as the host of CNN's NewsNight. Due to his relative inexperience prior to this tragedy, (Cooper’s resume includes hosting the now defunct reality show The Mole), we can deduce that this tearjerking and ire-raising reporting style resonates with media sources and consumers alike.
Sadly, this seems to be the future of news broadcasting. As a society, we are moving away from informed and intelligent reporting, and into the world of “news as entertainment.” Rather than real information, Americans receive nightly snippets of rehashed misinformation that exaggerate events and consequences, are fed by rumors and err on the side of human interest or human emotion. The irony of this experience is that those who seek information rarely receive it, and still others accept the world that is fed to them as reality.