Danny Heitman, a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, took to the pages of the Christian Science Monitor yesterday to launch a critique of the media’s handling of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. While he didn’t quite hit the bull’s-eye, his piece makes for a good jumping-off place to try to draw some conclusions about how New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were covered over the past year.
Heitman writes that “many residents of the flood-ravaged Crescent City continue to insist that reporters are missing the story. The locals frequently complain that even after months of coverage by TV, print, and Internet outlets, the full dimension of the disaster has somehow eluded the media’s yardstick.”
Given the enormity of the destruction, that parts of the story have been missed isn’t surprising. But we’re sticklers for evidence here at CJR Daily, and Heitman fails to locate exactly what it is that’s been missed. It’s not as though the region has been ignored by the press over the past 365 days.
On the other hand, Heitman’s piece was an op-ed, a forum that allows for painting with broad strokes and impressions. His overall point is that the “quiet” of the abandoned areas of New Orleans is “not easily conveyed on cable news channels, which abhor silence like the vacuum that it is. Though these soundless streets are the very texture of this tragedy, they don’t make marketable television.”
Indeed they don’t. But backing up Heitman’s larger point that parts of the story are eluding the media, a survey of the past seven months of the Tyndall Report (an online resource that tracks the major stories being covered by network news each week) shows that coverage by the three major networks declined sharply over the past year. Tyndall says that in on average, each network runs 19 minutes of editorial content per half-hour news program, producing a total of 285 minutes of coverage per week. Looking through the archives from January 2 until August 18 of this year, we found some interesting holes in the coverage of the post-Katrina Gulf Coast and New Orleans — holes which bolster Heitman’s thesis more than we had initially expected.
The breakdown goes like this: January ‘06 newscasts featured about 68 minutes of post-Katrina coverage, while February saw 65 minutes, and March 85 minutes. Then, though the post-hurricane problems and challenges continued, coverage fell off: April, 20 minutes (most of it coming from NBC News in a one-week span), May, 18 minutes (again, almost all of it from NBC News in a one-week span), June, 28 minutes, July, a paltry 12 minutes, and the first two weeks of August saw no time whatsoever slotted toward post-Katrina coverage.
Yet over the long haul, networks may have out-reported cable. CJR Daily spoke with Brian Stelter, who covers cable and network news for mediabistro’s TVNewser blog. Stelter said that when the storm first hit, he thought that the cable channels “owned” the story, and were doing a much better job than the networks. As time has gone on, however, he feels that the networks caught up to and overtook their cable counterparts in both the quality and the breadth of their coverage. He cautions that this doesn’t mean that the coverage is anywhere near what the scale of the disaster calls for. And Stelter agrees with Heitman that many of the images — empty lots and deserted streets — don’t lend themselves to TV visuals.
Stelter does say that he thinks NBC and CNN have done more than other TV news organizations to keep the story alive, but as both he and Heitman have pointed out, the absence of action doesn’t lend itself to prime time.