Setting the Record Straight

As if the horror of a hurricane sweeping away an American city wasn’t awful enough, in the days after Katrina barreled through New Orleans the press was filled with a man-made story almost as dramatic: the total breakdown of social order. And much of it was centered on the Superdome and the city’s Convention Center. We were told small children were being raped. Roving gangs of armed men were terrorizing the stranded refugees. Corpses were piling up. Policemen were being shot.

Not so fast. Today, a Los Angeles Times article, arriving on the heels of a New Orleans Times-Picayune piece that we highlighted yesterday, tells us that “follow-up reporting has discredited reports of a 7-year-old being raped and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang members attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a freezer at the Convention Center.”

Not just that. It seems that projected death counts — one doctor expected to find 200 bodies at the Superdome — were little more than fevered speculation and wild surmise. Only six bodies were found at the Superdome, and of those not one was murdered. Four died of natural causes, one overdosed and one committed suicide. At the convention center, four bodies were recovered, with only one appearing to have been murdered.

The Times article pins the blame for the hyperbole partly on a communications breakdown, with reporters unable to verify stories they were hearing from occupants of the Superdome and Convention Center — and from each other. But it also raises the issue of race. The editor of the Times-Picayune, Jim Amoss, told the Times, “if the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of middle class white people, it would not have been a fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering.”

Perhaps. But let’s remember that this wasn’t entirely a case of white people reporting falsely about black people. Two local officials, both men of color, did their share to fan the flames of rumor. Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of “hundreds of armed gang members” killing and raping people inside the Superdome, and an atmosphere that had turned “animalistic.” At one point during the week, he told Oprah Winfrey, “they have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.” Police superintendent Eddie Compass was equally hyperbolic.

Our suspicion is that something subtler than racism — but nearly as insidious — was at work. That would be the media’s knee-jerk lunging for drama and sensation at the expense of more measured, and more verifiable, accounts.

To take just one example, consider Fox News, which declared an “alert” just before Alan Colmes’ description of “robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness.”

To its credit, the Los Angeles Times doesn’t exonerate itself. It reports in its own piece that, “The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops “took positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire crackled in the distance.”

By contrast — and achieving perhaps new heights of humility — the piece goes on to give the New York Times a hat tip, saying it “repeated some of the reports of violence and unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.”

A fog of war descended on New Orleans in the days following the storm and levee break, and it’s easy to understand how fiction could have been taken for fact in such circumstances. But now that fog has cleared. And the press should grab the opportunity to learn from the experience and make sure that that which is unverified in the future is labeled just that: unverified.

Gal Beckerman

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Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.