Monday, September 26, 2005

The Myths of New Orleans

Remember all those media reports of murder, rape, etc. in New Orleans, as especially the Superdome, right after Hurricane Katrina? Well, many of them weren't true:
As floodwaters forced tens of thousands of evacuees into the Dome and Convention Center, news of unspeakable acts poured out of the nation's media: evacuees firing at helicopters trying to save them; women, children and even babies raped with abandon; people killed for food and water; a 7-year-old raped and killed at the Convention Center. Police, according to their chief, Eddie Compass, found themselves in multiple shootouts inside both shelters, and were forced to race toward muzzle flashes through the dark to disarm the criminals; snipers supposedly fired at doctors and soldiers from downtown high-rises.

In interviews with Oprah Winfrey, Compass reported rapes of "babies," and Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of "hundreds of armed gang members" killing and raping people inside the Dome. Unidentified evacuees told of children stepping over so many bodies, "we couldn't count."

The picture that emerged was one of the impoverished, masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other, as well as the police trying to protect them and the rescue workers trying to save them. Nagin told Winfrey the crowd has descended to an "almost animalistic state."

Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.
Hmmm.... Only one source for all those media reports: the mainstream media. It would seem the vaunted "fact checking process" some are so enamored of failed pretty spectacularly.

But, the stories are out there now, and part of the meta-story of New Orleans for all time to come. Can't take them back and running a quick "We were wrong." doesn't replace hours daily, day after day, of sensationalised, breathless reporting.

Will the media put the brakes on themselves next time? Will reason and caution replace the rush to be first and the desire to "grab" viewers with "compelling" stories? Will they research those rumors before they print and broadcast them?

What do you think?

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