Monday, October 03, 2005

On Truth, News Accuracy, and Real Consequences

The subhead to the Los Angeles Times story "Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy"
is: "Rumors supplanted accurate information and media magnified the problem. Rapes, violence and estimates of the dead were wrong."

That's pretty much the whole story of the Los Angeles Times story--and the essence of others of the same ilk. Both the New York Times and CNN carried less and more frantic stories about looting and unbridaled violence that in retrospect are being shown to be inaccurate. Quiet, reports are admitting this. But the innaccuracy is not the whole story; not nearly. The most heartbreaking aspect is the way this mistake further slowed an already criminally bureaucratic response.

The ultimate source of all this mild media self-examination is, as you might expect, the New Orlean's Times Picayune which at the height of the hysteria added to the frenzy but had the courage to recognize how wrong they'd been when the facts (and common sense) started to kick in. They published a story: "
Rumors of deaths greatly exaggerated" that started the reexamination. Their story documents in the greatest detail the rumors that were circulated as fact, the semi-hysterical tone of reporters --and, even more unfortunately--public officials, and the way those claims were later disproved or retracted.

You've heard about the Superdome and the unbridled murder and violence there? So has everyone else in the country. Here are the facts as the T-P discovered them:

After five days managing near-riots, medical horrors and unspeakable living conditions inside the Superdome, Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron prepared to hand over the dead to representatives of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Following days of internationally reported killings, rapes and gang violence inside the Dome, the doctor from FEMA - Beron doesn't remember his name - came prepared for a grisly scene: He brought a refrigerated 18-wheeler and three doctors to process bodies.

"I've got a report of 200 bodies in the Dome," Beron recalls the doctor saying.

The real total was six, Beron said.

Of those, four died of natural causes, one overdosed and another jumped to his death in an apparent suicide, said Beron, who personally oversaw the turning over of bodies from a Dome freezer, where they lay atop melting bags of ice. State health department officials in charge of body recovery put the official death count at the Dome at 10, but Beron said the other four bodies were found in the street near the Dome, not inside it. Both sources said no one had been killed inside.
Conditions inside the dome were inhuman; but the human's behavior, apparently, was not. And that is something that most of America will never know.

From the Los Angeles Times (free registration):
"It doesn't take anything to start a rumor around here," Louisiana National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the Superdome relief effort. "There's 20,000 people in here. Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone's ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor — and the rumor isn't the same thing it was when you started it."

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 bod
ies being shoved into a freezer at the Convention Center.

Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.

Fox News, a day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began, issued an "alert" as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports of "robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness."
Enough, the point is well established: the media happily reported fiction as fact, with only the few noting the majority of the "exciting" news they reported was rumor or that the first person accounts they repeated were not substantiated in the way that normal reporting would be by hard facts from police, coroner's reports, or multiple sources. Bad reporting. But that's not the end of the story; or it shouldn't be. Why was there such bad reporting? Most accounts, following the Times-Picayune's suggestion indict poor communications. That's too easy, I think. In my judgment, racism and ethnic regionalism played by far the larger role.

Here's the real reason we saw these stories: People report as fact rumors that they find believeable. They hesitate and fact check if a story seems unlikely. What is revealed in the media frenzy is that America "Doesn't like Black people." Or, at least, that reports of animality (and I heard that word used explicity on CNN) is credible when it refers to poor, urban, blacks. In all honesty, for most of this country, that extends to all southerners. Violent, gun-prone, and motivated by ideas of honor and community that seem at best old-fashioned and at worst dangerous, southern black and whites are seen as two sides of the same problematic coin by many of our countrymen. It is easy to believe we are violent, corrupt, and driven by twisted motives.

These false reports of violence were reported as fact because they were easy to believe; because they confirmed what the reporters and their editors already knew about what was likely to go on "down there."

I don't expect the media's self-examination to go there. Blaming communication failures for reporters acting on the too-easy assumption that "those people" were acting badly is an explaination which will not challenge their self-image.

It is one thing, and a bitter pill, to recognize that outsiders are willing to think poorly of us. But there are some even more difficult home truths to be dealt with by all Louisianians: We were willing to believe it of ourselves. People in the Dome were willing to believe it was happening somewhere else in the dome. Local officials were willing to believe and repeat the stories. And almost all of us reading the stories were--even if we initially resisted--willing to believe it when reptition dug in and officials seemed to confirm the stories. We are way too willing to believe that our fellows would act worse than we believe that we ourselves would. We ought to take a long, hard look inward.

The New York Times article covers part of the deeper story: that the questionably-motivated inaccuracies affected the rescue missions; that critical supplies and critical human help was kept out of the city on the strength of stories that the New York Times charatably called rumors. Some examples:

A team of paramedics was barred from entering Slidell, across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, for nearly 10 hours based on a state trooper's report that a mob of armed, marauding people had commandeered boats. It turned out to be two men escaping from their flooded streets, said Farol Champlin, a paramedic with the Acadian Ambulance Company.

Faced with reports that 400 to 500 armed looters were advancing on the town of Westwego, two police officers quit on the spot. The looters never appeared, said the Westwego police chief, Dwayne Munch.

"Rumors could tear down an entire army," Chief Munch said.

During six days when the Superdome was used as a shelter, the head of the New Orleans Police Department's sex crimes unit, Lt. David Benelli, said he and his officers lived inside the dome and ran down every rumor of rape or atrocity. In the end, they made two arrests for attempted sexual assault, and concluded that the other attacks had not happened.

For military officials, who flew rescue missions around the city, the reports that people were shooting at helicopters turned out to be mistaken. "We investigated one incident and it turned out to have been shooting on the ground, not at the helicopter," said Maj. Mike Young of the Air Force.

Other reports (2) have the military hesitant to enter in force because it did not want to be in the position of "policing" and posssibly shooting civilians. It's hard to think it a coincidence that when a Louisiana native who was less likely to believe the worst of his people, General Honore, was put in charge that he both tamped down on the fear among his soldiers, demanding that they and local police cease patrolling with arms at the ready and that things started moving quickly at the same time.

It's an old lesson: Fear Kills. Most often by fostering inaction.

And fear made credible by prejudice was responsible for too much of New Orlean's misery.

UPDATE 10/6/05:

The Washington Post has a story on this issue that is now headling the connection between misinformation and the criminally slow response to New Orlean's needs: "News of Pandemonium May Have Slowed Aid." There is no "may" about; that fear lead officials to turn back needed aid is abundantly documented.

The story focuses on the media story, poor journalism, communications failures, and the way that New Orleans' officials seemingly confirmed the stories. The actions of officials was truly irresponsible. But my very definite recollection is that the stories appeared in the media first. --The media did not merely repeat what officials said. The reverse is rather more likely.

Tying the misinformation to the human misery it increased is a good first start. I still await a any sense that this story was too easily believed of "those people" my media reporters. This story, in fact, rather astonishingly trots out the idea that "the last 40 years" have made "The public" "accustomed to riotous behavior from black people in lower-class neighborhoods." I am not sure the accusation is true of the public. But what this formulation ostentatiously avoids is the clear truth that is true of our national reporting cadre. And that is, or should be, professionally unacceptabe. Any reasonable fact-checking at the time would have kept this crud off the air.

Here is what people need to hear, and what the nation should have heard at the time:

Maj. Bush of the Louisiana National Guard said he is glad the record is being corrected.

"I certainly saw fights, but I saw worse fights at a Cubs game in Chicago," he said. "The people never turned into these animals. They have been cheated out of being thought of as these tough people who looked out for each other. We had more babies born [in the Superdome] than we had deaths."


GumboFilé said...

I attribute the rumors to three things, 1) racism; if the evacuees had been of a different demographic, we would have never heard any of these rumors, 2) excusing non-involvement; it's easier to excuse lack of compassion if you believe the victims are unworthy of compassion, and 3) gullibility; I would like to think folks are just plain gullible but I suspect it's more of 1 and 2.

I'm not particularly virtuous; I'm just a sceptical person. I know how easily even true accounts can be corrupted due to our nature and aggravated by our glut of media.

David in Grand Coteau

John said...


I agree mostly with your points, certainly all the factors you mention are in play in this situation. My two and three though would be bureaucracy and media "sensationalism." Actually, bureaucracy is probably number one--the dysfunctionality of having a rule for every instance (instead of relying on the judgment of people on the ground) is the bureau's greatest failing. In this situation it was fatal, in one example, waiting for FEMA-certified doctors was murderously stupid. Media sensationalism is a problem all over but it is particularly toxic when combined with racial and regional prejudice.

We got into a situation where prejudice and sensationalism made bureaucratic hyper caution based on rules a good refugee for the fearful. People failed to act when they should have and failed to discard stupid rules when it would have saved lives.