Tuesday, September 27, 2005

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.)


At 2:43 PM, September 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suppose there are two positions from which to be abashed.

One is abashed for one's profession, even though one had nothing to do with the wild reports.

The other is to be abashed that one passed on the wild reports.

Of the abashed journalists you mention, how many are in each group?

At 7:14 PM, September 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope the news in your last link(“too much else”) has something to do with the Times sinking credibility due to their lack of journalistic standards. And even leftists may be thinking, “why should I pay for the Times when I can get the same partisan propaganda for free on the internet?” I feel sorry for those workers that had nothing to do with the content of the Times in the last few years but I say good riddance to everyone in the “newsroom.”

At 9:19 PM, September 27, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Seeing themselves made fools of in the US, isn't going to stop them from being the dupes of terroists.

At 9:38 PM, September 27, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not to be too PC, but I think the American public likes stories about black people going nuts and killing each other. The offending coverage of Katrina reminds me alot of the coverage of pretty much anything that happens in Africa.

At 6:18 AM, September 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

warm, you're definitely being too PC. Those rumors weren't just spread by the media, or by its supposedly racist white audience. New Orlean's mayor helped spread them himself, telling the media that people at the Convention Center were standing there watching "hooligans killing people, raping people." And, along with other comments on lurid violence in New Orleans, the city's police chief, Edwin Compass, told Oprah Winfrey that "some of the little babies (are) getting raped" in the Dome. Both of these men are black. For that matter, most of the terrified people trapped in New Orleans who believed and spread those rumors were black themselves.

Do you suppose they "like stories about black people going nuts and killing each other"?

I don't think so. I think that, just like the rest of us, they were frightened and bewildered by an unprecedented situation, and they gave in to a normal human tendency under such conditions to believe and to spread dire rumors. That tendency isn't assigned to any race, and it isn't a marker of racism. You can watch it operate in any situation where human beings, regardless of color, are under stress.

Not that this excuses the media. It's supposed to be the job of professional journalists to remember this particular risk and to rise above it, and they failed miserably. But please put away racism as an explanation for this particular problem -- or if you won't, then explain why the same Americans you seem to think were chortling over the tales of black people attacking one another in New Orleans were digging so deeply into their wallets to help those people at the very same time.

At 6:50 AM, September 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is interesting that some of the most hysterical and unflattering rumors about black behavior were publically spread by blacks like Nagin and Campass. And how about the ridiculous posting on the Huffington Post about blacks resorting to cannabalism after a few days ( that offensive statement was subsequently removed by it's black author). I don't know what conclusions to reach but it sure seems like blacks were as quick or quicker to jump to wrong conclusions so I sure don't believe it's fair to accuse whites of racism. Maybe,sadly,it's just human nature regardless of color to give in to thinking the worst.

At 10:18 AM, September 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Maybe,sadly,it's just human nature regardless of color to give in to thinking the worst."

I agree,"thinking the worst" is often taken a step further by the news media by showing and writing about it in a sensational way. The old reporter's credo comes to mind "IF IT BLEEDS, IT LEADS". Sensationalism has always paid dividends in ratings and readership. Why stop giving the viewers/readers what they historically have always wanted?
No racism here, just economics.

At 10:56 AM, September 28, 2005, Blogger SteveR said...

Anyone who has closely observed "reporting" on Israel/Arab/Palestinian events over the past 30 years should have felt a sense of deja-vu over the initial, wildly-exagerated reports in the wake of Katrina.

To me, the talk of "dozens of murders," "old people dying like flies", etc. sounded like nothing so much as the early reports of an "Israeli massacre" by Agence France, Reuters, BBC, et. al. that came from Jenin in the spring of 2002 (to cite only one of many examples.)

At 11:51 AM, September 28, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"To me, the talk of "dozens of murders," "old people dying like flies", etc. sounded like nothing so much as the early reports of an "Israeli massacre" by Agence France, Reuters, BBC, et. al. that came from Jenin in the spring of 2002 (to cite only one of many examples.)"

Except the media never describes the results of Palestinian actions as massacres, unless they actually ARE massacres. Even then, they downplay the Palestinian actions, portraying them instead as some form of righteous vengenance for some media-imagined offense on Israel's part.

The media has shown, repeatedly, that they will happily ignore the "if it bleeds, it leads" principle when Israelis are being murdered. They aren't sensationalists, they are actively propagandizing for the enemies of democracy.

At 9:23 AM, October 02, 2005, Blogger Solomon2 said...

I have a slightly different view: some of the MSM reporting is quite good, like this MSNBC story; however, they rarely if ever investigate with the purpose of debunking their own inaccuracies.

At 6:05 AM, April 06, 2006, Blogger Simon Langer said...

Hello, Just wandering the blogosphere and happened on your blog. I like the way how you have put it all together. I'll be coming back again.


Hurricane Katrina and pictures


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