Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reports of atrocities false

In the early days following Katrina the media reports of atrocities in New Orleans shocked the nation and the world.  Audiences heard and read about a city in anarchy and subhuman conditions in the Dome and Convention Center.  However, the reports of violence were false and could not be verified.   Reports were based on rumors several times removed from the source. 

For example, on September 5 the Financial Times of London attributed the following report to unnamed refugees: "Girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted." The report claimed that "several hundred corpses are reported to have been gathered by locals in one school alone" in St. Bernard Parish, the badly flooded community just east of the city. A similar report indicated that up to 300 bodies were piled in Marion Abramson High School in Eastem New Orleans. Reporters from the Times-Picayune canoed to the school, went inside, and found no bodies.

"Stone-age storytelling got amplified by space-age technology," according to Thevenot (2005). Rumors of bodies in the Dome were retold several times and finally reached the media.  When "the media arrived, with satellite phones and modems, BlackBerrys, television trucks with the ability to broadcast worldwide and the technology to post on the Internet in an instant," most of them did not realize that "normal rules of sourcing no longer ensured accuracy." The stories went global as officials, hurricane victims, and rescue and security personnel confirmed nightmarish scenarios, sincerely believing what they were saying and wanting desperately to get the word out so that help would come. The media also believed the stories they were telling, repeating without verification the stories being told by the officials. When it was discovered that the stories were false, the media were criticized.  However, it was the media who revealed the falsehood of the stories. The only reason for knowing about the bad reporting was that the journalists told us.

Source: Thevenot, B. (2005). Myth-Making in New Orleans. American Journalism Review, 27(6), 30-37. Retrieved from Academic Search Premier database.

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