In the days following Hurricane Katrina, we heard stories of chaos and violence in the streets of New Orleans. Only later did it become clear how much of that initial reporting was exaggerated and flat-out false. Bob talks to New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot about whether the myths created in the initial coverage can ever be fully dispelled.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD:: And I'm Bob Garfield. This week in Washington, a bipartisan committee began the process of reviewing the government's response to Hurricane Katrina. Meanwhile, in the current issue of American Journalism Review, the media's response was reviewed too. We'll talk about both of the AJR stories. First, New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter Brian Thevenot, in a story called "Myth-Making in New Orleans," reckons with the amount of misreporting in the immediate aftermath of the storm and takes stock of the mainstream media's commitment to correcting the record. As proof that perhaps the record has not really been totally corrected, I'll admit that I don't know where the facts stand on some of the most outrageous items that came out in the initial reporting on Katrina. So I asked Brian to run down the list and give me a true-or-false. First, there were reports of people shooting at the helicopters that came to rescue them. Did that happen?
BRIAN THEVENOT:: I believe there was one case of that, and it was somebody on the west bank who was apparently shooting from his house. And I don't know the details of that case, but I believe that the man actually was charged. He turned out to be deranged. But during that early time, you may remember that there was, you know, reports of snipers. There were reports of people at the Superdome shooting at the helicopters that were coming to save them, and none of that has been proved.
BOB GARFIELD:: How about dead bodies stacked in freezers? There were reports of 30 bodies in a walk-in freezer, I think, at the Convention Center.
BRIAN THEVENOT:: Yeah. I know that one pretty intimately. I quoted a couple of soldiers saying that in a story, and then came back in a later story and corrected it. There were actually bodies in a freezer but not at the Convention Center and not nearly so many.
BOB GARFIELD:: What about the mayhem reported in the Superdome - rapes, rapes of adults, rapes of children? Did any of that take place?
BRIAN THEVENOT:: Rape is a tougher issue to take on than murder, of course, because even in normal times it's a notoriously underreported crime. But I think it's safe to say that the reports of widespread rape were, at the very best, exaggerated. And, you know, a lot of that was centered on rapes of children, and I don't think any of that has been proven to be true.
BOB GARFIELD:: Now, on television and in print, it seems to me that reporters were reasonably careful to talk about reports of these incidents happening as opposed to reporting them as proven fact. Nonetheless, it created an image in New Orleans of a kind of chaos that never really was taking place. Have newspapers and other media done a decent job going back to correct the record?
BRIAN THEVENOT:: Yeah, I think they have. I think there are some things, because of the nature of the disaster and its scope, that we're never really going to find out, you know, the full truth of, but I do think that the record has been corrected, is being corrected. I think it's an ongoing process. Big papers have taken this on. The networks jumped on, and actually, to their credit, made the correcting of the record a major story that led a lot of their newscasts.
BOB GARFIELD:: And you had - in your piece in AJR you quote Poynter Institute ethicist Keith Woods kind of telling you, you know, well, correcting your errors is all well and good but, you know, let's not go overboard here. What was he getting at?
BRIAN THEVENOT:: I think he's mostly commenting about television news. Instead of sending out a fleet of reporters to try to do their own original reporting, it's easier for them to take a situation like that and put three pundits on the air, one of them who would be a media-basher, to attribute all sorts of dark motives to the reporters involved. In other words, the media would be contributing to its own poor image with the public. There are certainly real scandals that we all know about, the Jayson Blairs and Stephen Glass's of the world where people just flat made stuff up. This is more a situation where people made, in many cases, understandable errors, attributing things to sources that in a normal environment would have been credible.
BOB GARFIELD:: Well, let's talk about some of those sources, because we're not talking about street snitches who you give a five-dollar bill to in expectation of getting a hot tip. We're talking about the Mayor of New Orleans. We're talking about the Chief of Police of the City of New Orleans who stood at press conferences making assertions that turned out to have absolutely no basis in fact.
BRIAN THEVENOT:: I think the most extreme example was the Mayor and the Police Chief taking Oprah Winfrey on a tour, making comments about murders and rape. The famous one that's been repeated over and over was the Police Chief Eddie Compass, in sort of an emotional, kind of teary interview, saying that there was babies being raped in the Superdome. You know, that's a tough one. Officials of that authority, you can't get away with not quoting what they say. You know, the best question is this instance is how do you know that? Where are you getting this information from? And try to chase the chain of information back to where it started.
BOB GARFIELD:: Brian, it sounds a little noisy in the background. Are you and your colleagues back in the Times-Picayune newsroom?
BRIAN THEVENOT:: We are back in the newsroom. We've been back here for about six weeks. We had almost all of our news staff come back with the uncertain economic future in the city. They have made some transfers of people out of the newsroom to fill spots in other departments, but no one's been laid off.
BOB GARFIELD:: Well, I don't want to go on Barbara Walters on you or anything, but I am curious what this whole episode, this ongoing episode has taught you about journalism.
BRIAN THEVENOT:: First of all, it's reinforced the importance of journalism. I - and you'll get the same comments from my colleagues - have never felt so vital to a community. People who read our newspaper are literally aching for information. They hang on every word and every scrap of news. I think certainly as it relates to the subject of disaster reporting, I think we have been reminded to be extra vigilant in situations that are chaotic, to continually ask our sources how they know the information that they know and to tightly attribute especially the sort of high-temperature kind of reports that came out of this disaster zone, to let readers into exactly how we know what we know and what our confidence in that information is.
BOB GARFIELD:: Okay. Well, Brian, good luck to you, and thank you very much.
BRIAN THEVENOT:: Well, thank you.
BOB GARFIELD:: Brian Thevenot is a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
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