Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy
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.
His assessment is one of several in recent days to conclude that newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center.
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.”
Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played a factor.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.’ ”
The media inaccuracies had consequences in the disaster zone.
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.
Times staff writer Scott Gold contributed to this report.