Not the media's finest hour--reporting urban legends as fact
When I first heard the stories of widespread rape, murder, and other carnage at the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center after Katrina, I was horrified.
Horrified, but skeptical. The last couple of years have taught me, as never before, that many newspapers are not especially keen on fact-checking or substantiating the veracity of their sources. What they do seem to be keen on, in this hotly competitive 24-hour news cycle, is getting the story out quickly--the more sensational, the better.
So I took those stories with some hefty grains of salt, since they sounded for all the world like urban legends. And now, with the passage of time, as the fog of Katrina has lifted, it turns out that most, if not all, of those stories appear to have been rumors (via Clive Davis):
Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina - making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs of unchecked savages.
"I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he said. "It's unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn't the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them. ... It's not consistent with the highest standards of journalism."
No, it's not consistent with the highest standards. But it's consistent with the usual standards.
And, in fact, if you read the entire article, it's hard even for a media-basher such as myself to blame the media entirely. The rumors were so rampant and so global that even the Mayor and the Police Superintendent were fooled. Authorities who recently came into both venues searching for bodies were prepared to find scores or more, based on these reports.
There is no doubt that conditions were abominable; everyone agrees on that. But civility seems to have reigned for the most part. The number of rapes may be impossible to ascertain, but the evidence indicates that the reports of rapes were probably greatly exaggerated as well. The situation was rife for rumors of horror to spread: huge numbers of people under extreme conditions of fear and privation.
Reporter Gary Younge of the Guardian (another surprise--the Guardian?) has been skeptical of the reports for quite some time. In an article he wrote back on September 6, Younge was already questioning the veracity of the reports. An excerpt:
New Orleans police have been unable to confirm the tale of the raped child, or indeed any of the reports of rapes, in the Superdome and convention centre...New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass said last night: "We don't have any substantiated rapes. We will investigate if the individuals come forward." And while many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors' relatives have come forward.
Nor has the source for the story of the murdered babies, or indeed their bodies, been found. And while the floor of the convention centre toilets were indeed covered in excrement, the Guardian found no corpses....
"Katrina's winds have left behind an information vacuum. And that vacuum has been filled by rumour.
"There is nothing to correct wild reports that armed gangs have taken over the convention centre," wrote Associated Press writer, Allen Breed.
"You can report them but you at least have to say they are unsubstantiated and not pass them off as fact," said one Baltimore-based journalist.
"But nobody is doing that."
The best thing one can say about these stories is that some journalists themselves seem abashed that they were taken in. The remedy, as the unnamed "Balimore-based journalist" states, would have been to have stated that the stories were unsubstantiated rumors.
But that doesn't sell newspapers, does it? (Not that too much else does, these days.)