Winter 2005

Words Triumph Over Images

‘The human element was accentuated, and the best of the writing was impressionistic.’

By Curtis Wilkie
Let me begin with a confession. After watching television coverage of Katrina for nearly every wakeful moment over the first few dramatic days, I quit. Cold turkey. TV news had morphed into a mutant reality show: “Survivor” gone berserk. Even The Weather Channel seemed to be anchored by Chicken Little. So I turned it off. An odd reaction, I know, for someone who spent nearly 40 years as a reporter and visited his share of catastrophes. But I was suffering sensory overload and found my spirits in free fall, because my home is in New Orleans.

Long ago, I had given up on radio, the happy medium of my childhood, as a news source. With the exception of National Public Radio, the airwaves seem to have been taken over by talk shows promulgating nonsense, rumors and invective or music stations carrying the sameness of Clear Channel play lists. I’m not adept at the Internet, the latest means to obtain information—as well as all sorts of misinformation. I am—another admission—wedded to print journalism. So I began to rely entirely on newspapers as I followed events from Oxford, Mississippi, where I teach and have a second home. And as the disaster played out for weeks, I felt satisfied I was getting a clearer and more detailed picture from the written words than from the frantic scenes on TV.

Television had the advantage of immediacy and the ability to transmit visual images. But so much of what I saw and heard in those early days was unfiltered, not always factual, and too often failed to provide any context.

While Brian Williams of NBC News provided strong first-hand reporting from the Superdome within hours after the storm hit, others relied on hearsay and repeated it in apocalyptic voices. I heard one correspondent reporting “from the heart of the French Quarter,” yet saw in the background that he was actually speaking from a part of the city we know as the CBD (Central Business District).

Not everyone was as careful as Jeanne Meserve of CNN. During a live telecast, she was asked by her anchor to describe conditions in one neighborhood. She simply said she did not know, that she had not yet been able to reach that part of the city. Others seemed reluctant to acknowledge that they did not know. Instead, they spoke, in authoritative terms, of that which they knew little.

When the city began to flood, we were told that the waters were drowning “the Lower Ninth Ward.” It begged the question: Where is the Ninth Ward? New Orleanians knew, but many of them were scrambling for their lives. Those in the rest of the country were deep into crisis coverage before finally learning its location—after someone thought to cut through the clutter of graphics and crawls to display an old-fashioned device: a map.

Another kvetch: Television played repeated loops of video shot from helicopter fly-bys, grim sights of shattered buildings or families stranded on rooftops or frightened people wading through foul waters, without any explanation of where the pictures had been taken. Some of the scenes, it turns out, were coming from the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Katrina’s devastation was terrible there, too. But that part of the story was given short shrift during the first days of coverage.

Operating under heavy stress in difficult conditions can be an alibi, but it’s not a good excuse for sloppy journalism.I have empathy for the reporters, on TV and in print, whose knowledge of New Orleans did not extend beyond Bourbon Street. Many times during my years as a national and foreign correspondent for The Boston Globe I arrived at the scene of a news story a complete stranger. I committed gaffes and gave credence to bogus information, too. But I also learned that these experiences cry for a reporter to learn quickly as much background as possible about the assignment, to be able to ask the right questions rather than to appear to know all the answers, to put the story in proper perspective, and to be skeptical of tales that might heighten the drama but prove to be false.

Reckless Reporting

Operating under heavy stress in difficult conditions can be an alibi, but it’s not a good excuse for sloppy journalism.

Katrina gave new meaning to the term “urban legends.” They grew up in the wake of the storm like mold and mildew in the flooded homes of New Orleans: stories we now know to be overwrought. So far as I know, the first news organization to investigate the credibility of lurid accounts of murder, rape and wanton terrorism was The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, which heroically continued to publish under the worst circumstances. Others followed their lead and discovered many exaggerations and lies and cases where officials, who should have been dependable sources, turned out to have been unreliable.

From my vantage point, I became suspicious after reading—high in a front page story in The New York Times—a fuzzy anecdote concerning a Corps of Engineers crew that came under fire from mysterious assailants. Police officers were said to have retaliated, shooting dead four or five of the gang members. It was attributed to police sources. This was one hell of a episode, I thought, and waited to learn more. The story simply disappeared.

New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin’s assertion on the third day that “most likely, thousands” of bodies would be discovered amid the carnage titillated the tabloids and served as the sound bite of the day. His estimate helped to underscore the dire situation in his city, but it was highly inflated. Before the month was out, Nagin’s police superintendent, Eddie Compass, paid with his job for his own fabrications of anarchy in the city.

In these cases, reporters were unwitting accomplices. They trusted official sources, when it would have been better to have sniffed the malodor. When I was in the Middle East, correspondents frequently encountered wild and flagrantly biased testimony from partisans in conflicts. These highly charged accounts were known, with some amusement in the trade, as “stories too good to check,” because we knew we’d invariably lose rich and colorful copy if, indeed, we double-checked. But double-check we did, and the tales usually wound up on the newsroom’s equivalent of the cutting-room floor.

Throughout September, when I basically confined my television watching to baseball and football, I kept up with post-Katrina through wire stories in local papers and reading The New York Times and The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson, which defied Gannett’s customary penury over the news hole by providing pages and pages on the plight in Mississippi.

The coverage was comprehensive, yet measured. The most powerful stories singled out individuals caught up in the greatest crisis of their lifetimes. The human element was accentuated, and the best of the writing was impressionistic. Of the hundreds of stories I saw, I especially remember Dan Barry’s article in The New York Times, a macabre account of the horror, focused on an abandoned corpse in downtown New Orleans. Reading it, I thought: I would always prefer Conrad to cheesy television where desperate people were treated like “Desperate Housewives.”

Curtis Wilkie holds the Cook Chair in Journalism at the University of Mississippi. His house in the French Quarter survived the storm.

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