Flashback: After Katrina, Sensationalistic Media Accounts Earned Press a D-Minus

Five years ago on Sunday, Hurricane Katrina smashed into the Gulf coast, devastating much of the region, and most memorably New Orleans. Yesterday was an occasion to look back at what went wrong in the city, and hope that the same mistakes are not made again.

One of the most notorious failures surrounding Katrina was the media's coverage of the situation in New Orleans. One "well-known [television] anchor," actor and filmmaker Harry Shearer recalled in an interview with Daily Finance's Jeff Bercovici, claimed the "the emotional stories are more compelling for our audience." Hence, the media mostly ignored the larger issues facing the city - survivors still stranded on rooftops, the reasons for the levy's failures - in favor of more sensationalistic, occasionally outright false stories.

Shearer gives the media's coverage - with the notable exceptions of only a couple outlets - a D-minus.

Shearer told Bercovici:

The [New York] Times did okay. I think the rest of the press gets a D, and probably a D-minus for their efforts at patting themselves on the back about how well they did speaking truth to power. Anderson Cooper ... giving a lecture to [Louisiana senator] Mary Landrieu, like that's the person you need to lecture. It was grandstanding and showboating in place of telling a story -- partly because they left. They left. Water leaves, story over. The [New Orleans] Times-Picayune won two Pulitzers for their work because they couldn't leave. They lived there. They had to stay.

In addition to the Times's coverage, Shearer also praised the work of Michael Grunwald, who covered Katrina for Time and the Washington Post.

But he went on to blast the press's shallow approach to post-Katrina coverage, claiming that news consumers saw "lots of images of people destitute and unhappy but never [got] to find out why."

W. Joseph Campbell, communications professor at American University and author of "Getting it Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism" (hint: Katrina is one of the 10) agrees with Shearer. In the book, he wrote that post-Katrina media coverage "was in important respects flawed and exaggerated. On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong."

They reported snipers firing at medical personnel. They reported that shots were fired at helicopters, halting evacuations from the Convention Center [in New Orleans].

They told of bodies being stacked there like cordwood. They reported roving gangs were preying on tourists and terrorizing the occupants of the Superdome, raping and killing. They said children were victims of sexual assault, that one seven-year-old was raped and her throat was slit. They reported that sharks were plying the flooded streets of New Orleans.

Those reports wrong, and they contributed mightily to the public (mis)perception of the situation in New Orleans.

At his blog, Media Myth Alert, Campbell added

no single news organization committed all those errors. And not all those lapses were committed at the same time, although they were largely concentrated during the first days of September 2005.

In any case, I write, the erroneous and over-the-top reporting "had the cumulative the effect of painting for America and the rest of the world a scene of surreal violence and terror, something straight out of Mad Max or Lord of the Flies."

Estimates of Katrina's death toll in New Orleans also were wildly exaggerated.

U.S. Senator David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, said on September 2, 2005, that fatalities in the state could reach 10,000 or more.

Vitter described his estimate as "only a guess," but it was nonetheless taken up by the then-New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and reported widely.

In all, the death toll in Louisiana from Katrina was around 1,500.

About the inaccurate estimates of fatalities, the Times of London said it had become clear by in mid-September 2005 "that 10,000 people could have died only if more than 90 per cent of them had locked themselves into their homes, chained themselves to heavy furniture and chosen to drown instead of going upstairs as the waters rose."

But the Times rationalized the flawed reporting, suggesting that it was inevitable: When "nature and the 24-hour news industry collide, hyperbole results."

A weak excuse, that. Besides, post-Katrina reporting from New Orleans was more than hyperbolic: It described apocalyptic horrors that the hurricane supposedly unleashed.

"D-minus" is none too generous.

As usual, the media adopted the role of the nation's finger-pointers in New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath, singling out a number of people and institutions they thought deserved blame. Ironically, of all the failings in the days after the hurricane hit, the media's will inevitably be remembered as among the most grave.