Myth-Making in New Orleans: The Impressive Media Coverage of Hurricane Katrina Was Marred by the Widespread Reporting-Sometimes Attributed to Public Officials-Of Murders and Rapes That Apparently Never Took Place. What Can News Outlets Learn from This Episode to Prevent Similar Problems in the Future?

Article excerpt

As I walked briskly through the dimly lit area inside the food service entrance of New Orleans' Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, the thought of pulling back the sheets covering the four stinking, decomposing corpses in front of me seemed wrong, even perverse. Before I'd even thought to ask, one of the two soldiers who escorted me, Arkansas National Guardsman Mikel Brooks, nixed the prospect of looking inside the freezer he and another soldier said contained "30 or 40" bodies.

"I ain't got the stomach for it, even after what I saw in Iraq," he said.

I didn't push it. Now I wish I had, as gruesome as that may seem. The soldiers might have branded me a morbid fiend and run me the hell out of there, but my story in the September 6 edition of the Times-Picayune would have been right, or at least included a line saying I'd been denied the opportunity to lay eyes on the freezer.

Instead, I quoted Brooks and another soldier, by name, about the freezer's allegedly grim inventory, including the statement that it contained a "7-year-old with her throat cut."

Neither the mass of bodies nor the allegedly expired child would ever be found. As I later reported, an internal review by Arkansas Guard Lt. Col. John Edwards found that Brooks and others who repeated the freezer story had heard it in the food line at Harrah's Casino, a law enforcement and military staging area a block away. Edwards told me no soldier had actually seen bodies in a freezer.

I retell this story not to deflect blame--factual errors under my byline are mine alone--but as an example of how one of hundreds of myths got reported in the early days of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath. I corrected the freezer report--along with a slew of other rumors and myths transmitted by the media--in a September 26 Times-Picayune story coauthored by my colleague Gordon Russell. In that piece, we sought to separate fact from fiction on the narrow issue of reported violence at the Louisiana Superdome and the Convention Center.

We hadn't anticipated the massive shockwave of self-correction that story would send through the international media. The examination of myths of violence--and their confirmation by New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin and then-Police Superintendent Eddie Compass--became the story for days on end, a moment of mass-scale media introspection that ultimately resulted in a healthy revision of history's first draft.

The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post followed up with similar, well-researched efforts debunking myths and coming to essentially the same conclusion we had: While anarchy indeed reigned in the city, and subhuman conditions in the Dome and the Convention Center shocked the nation's conscience, many if not most of the alarmist reports of violence were false, or at least could not be verified. Dozens of other newspapers and television outlets joined in, offering news and opinion pieces, many doggedly questioning what they and others had earlier reported.

Our myth-debunking story put me in the eye of the debate's swirling storm. National television outlets praised our work, quoted it frequently and sought me out for interviews as their latest instant expert. A few bloggers had the opposite reaction, hanging me in virtual effigy as a symbol of the failings of the dreaded "MSM"--the mainstream media, that evil monolith--and concocting conspiracy theories to explain the media's errant early reports. Questions of race and class pervaded the debate in all media: Did the reporting of violence stem from journalists' willingness to believe the worst about poor African Americans? What role did the refugees themselves, along with local black public officials--both of whom served as sources for many of the false stories--play in creating the myths?

The New York Times tempered its assessment of false reports, writing "some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations. …