How Katrina and BP spill coverage defined NOLA as the two events, in turn, shaped local press

A review of Oil and Water: Media Lessons from Hurricane Katrina and The Deepwater Horizon Disaster

When Hurricane Katrina charged through New Orleans, the devastation left in its wake had an unintended side effect: It became a destination for the media, whose coverage defined the city in the eyes of the nation. Before 2005, New Orleans was scintillating, if unknown, place—a historic African American city and a wonderful vacation destination. After, it was a place where college graduates flock to become a part of the ‘rebirth’ of the city—a place where Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie relocated to raise their children.

Oil and Water: Media Lessons from Hurricane Katrina and The Deepwater Horizon Disaster (University Press of Mississippi) is a new book that recounts how press coverage of the two natural disasters came to define the city, and how the two events, in turn, came to shape the press. Written by three academics from Louisiana State University, Tulane, and Western Kentucky University, the book summarizes ethnographic and quantitative studies of press coverage of the two events while synthesizing hundreds of interviews with local journalists, residents, and sources involved in press coverage of the disasters.

Two of the three authors are local, and the book reflects that. Interviews conducted with the reporters that covered the two events ignore those that parachuted in from the national press, leaving the sections of the book that analyze coverage skewed towards the Louisiana media. Though the book is academic in tone, the methodology behind the authors’ conclusions isn’t always disclosed or examined, making it difficult to assess the authority of any individual point. Despite the unevenness of the argument, the book places coverage of the two news events in provocative contrast, demonstrating how big stories influence newsrooms in a way that’s relevant for disaster coverage today.

Early storm coverage hit a media scene still on the brink of the digital age. Yet when Katrina landed in 2005, newsrooms were forced to innovate and improvise in the blackout of cellphones and absence of political officials, and outlets began posting updates in real time to the Web. “It was so chaotic and there were so many citizens out there trying to find people…I think the blog very much captured the mood of people during those times,” New Orleans Times-Picayune editor David Meeks tells the authors.

Likewise, those early-responding journalists who weathered Katrina in the city were placed in a situation that altered normal reporting ethics. Journalists, like their subjects, were struggling to receive real-time information to ensure the safety of loved ones—and, like their subjects, they were reliant on looting for food and supplies. “They felt they were the last ones to pass judgement on their fellow New Orleanians,” the authors write.

In the absence of official updates from police bulletins and the like, local journalists journeyed to neighborhoods they’d seen little of as beat reporters to assess the damage and report back to their readers. The practice became a version of accountability reporting: It was difficult to argue to a reporter who’d seen bodies floating in the water that the death toll was minimal. Journalists also used witnesses as sources more than ever before. A survey of gulf coast newspapers between 2004 and 2006 found that unaffiliated sources surged in coverage. The most often-used titles of these sources: “victim,” “eyewitness,” and “resident.” The book’s authors attribute a rise in police accountability reporting to these practices. In a 2010 investigation along with ProPublica, the Times-Picayune caused dozens of police officers to go on trial after digging into a series of homicide coverups.

Such journalistic practices, the authors believe, are directly attributable to the nonroutine sourcing made standard with Katrina, which pushed reporters to question officials more fervently. But analysis of press coverage before the storm is missing from the book, leaving it difficult to tell whether the rise in accountability reporting comes from a scarcity pre-Katrina.

Five years later, when the Deepwater Horizon oil spill happened, these local journalists were a savvier press corps, “veterans and victims of the Katrina disaster.” But the oil gusher presented a different communications conundrum. Reporters confronted a complicated story, requiring specialized scientific knowledge, controlled by a corporate entity. Add to that the slimmer newsmarket of post-Katrina New Orleans, which according to the National Association of Television Program Executives fell by 110,000 homes. BP made newsgathering difficult, often feeding stories to the national press and locking local outlets out. And to the national press, as a story of livelihood rather than lives, the BP spill was just less interesting. “Watching a rig on fire in the middle of the ocean, compared to watching twenty thousand people suffer outside the Superdome, is far less dramatic to remote audiences,” said the authors.

During Katrina, the national media had been allies; local reporters whose bandwidth had been shattered shared the screen with national outlets who were struggling for information. Similarly, the national media forced authorities to react in ways that local reports could not. But the tight guard watching over the BP story pitted the local outlets against national ones. As a local reporter told the authors, “I’ve seen Anderson Cooper in places that we weren’t able to get into.”

In reality, both sets of reporters were shut out—a fact that came to light months later when the inaccuracy of information fed to the press by BP came to light. Unlike during Katrina, the official word dominated coverage. In a survey of two weeks of national and local television, 44 percent of sources were state or national government officials, 24 percent were academics, political analysis, and BP corporate officials. Only 13 percent were residents and victims. The lack of counter framing added to the sense that the fourth estate was asleep on the story.

While the book revisits a transformative time in the New Orleans journalism—and harkens to other coverage of disasters of late—the world of the local and national press is vastly different than corps that covered either event. From the fledgling Web strategy during Katrina, the Times-Picayune has transformed to a digital-first enterprise. Most of the Times-Pic reporters interviewed have taken buyouts or moved on to other jobs since covering the storm aftermath.

The book ends with a warning cry for abandoning the print media, pointing out that only 36 percent of New Orleans’ approximately 343,000 residents have internet access. But how the local corps should reinvent themselves to better serve their audience post-storm and spill remains unclear.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , ,