When Hurricane Katrina hit, reporters made serious mistakes. Here's what to avoid this time around

Before Hurricane Harvey dumped feet of water on Texas, a bevy of national reporters descended on the state to cover the devastating storm, which has since forced local Houston journalists to evacuate their studio and continues to pummel the region with record-breaking rains.

The devastating flood damage in Houston has drawn comparisons to Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in 2005 and produced the highest storm surge ever seen on U.S. soil.

But there are differences between the ways in which reporters are covering a hurricane this time around. Hurricane Katrina was later seen as “a real black mark on journalism,” says Kathleen Bartzen Culver, the assistant professor and James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin Madison.

During Katrina, Culver says, journalists reported unsubstantiated rumors, such as inflated body counts and exaggerated reports of violent crime. A widely circulated photograph described a black man as “looting;” a similar photo of a White man described him as “finding bread and soda.”

I talked to Culver about what has changed since Hurricane Katrina, and how national and local reporters can ethically report during crisis situations. Our conversation is below.

I've read quite a bit about how reporters covered Hurricane Katrina (and the ethical firestorm that erupted later), and I'm wondering what you’ve noticed has changed since that coverage.

I do think that Hurricane Katrina is a good place to start because it’s valuable to look at what we’ve done right and wrong and learn from the way we’ve covered hurricanes in the past. With Katrina, we went quite wrong and I don’t see outlets making those same mistakes this time around in Houston.

Where things started to get hairy with Katrina is when we started to realize how big a disaster it was, and there wasn’t a lot of good information and we started following rumor after rumor.

It was stunning to have things like the reports of tens of thousands of body bags being delivered to New Orleans. That turned out to be nowhere near true.

I think the mayor of New Orleans said something at one point like we could be looking at 10,000 people dead. A lot of news organizations reported that because when the mayor of a major American city comes out and says something like that you tend to treat that person as a reliable source. They suspended skepticism and didn’t ask questions.

There were also people who came out in the aftermath of Katrina who poo-pooed that initial reporting and said “Well, the death toll was only about a tenth of what he said.” But that’s still 1,500 people (in Louisiana) who perished. In crisis situations, when we’re critiquing ourselves, we have to make sure we don’t lose sight of the human toll. We can be so fixated on our own practices that we can lose sight of the larger situation — this happens when reporters treat things as events and not as trends.

What are the types of questions that reporters covering Harvey should be asking?

One of the really important stories is “Why Houston specifically?” It’s been a very, very heavily built-up city, and I think one of the questions coming out of this hurricane will be “Is it an overdeveloped city?” Another question reporters should be asking is: “Is there concrete scientific evidence that this hurricane and events like it are related to climate change.” We’ve now had Katrina, Sandy, Harvey — Katrina and Sandy were called 100-year storms and Harvey a 500-year storm. All three happened within 12 years. That should prompt news organizations to ask why.

I notice a lot of national news organizations coming in and doing breaking news disaster coverage. What’s the ethical responsibility of covering a crisis like this?

You see the networks sending six people to Houston and doing their live and emotionally charged standups — well, okay, we can judge that as breaking news event coverage — but the most important question is, “Are they going to be there six months from now, asking questions?”

Probably not — there will be another crisis and it’s not necessarily economically viable.

When the business model of journalism is as fraught as the one we face today, ethics can become difficult because there aren’t necessarily enough people on the ground doing the work before we can begin to question whether they’re doing it responsibly.

During Katrina, people from outside New Orleans came in to do many stories and the flavor of the local journalism was quite different than national journalism outlets, which didn’t necessarily have the context.

I think a lot about how we cover race, and from that angle, Katrina is a real black mark on journalism. We tended to completely over-report on poorer black residents of New Orleans because middle and upper-class people — White, Black, Latino, Asian — were much more likely to get out of town. So coverage was tilted on questions of race and class. Now we have even fewer jobs in journalism and that lack of people on the ground can result in a skewed picture overall when national news organizations sweep in.

That’s not something that we can control for in our reporting during crisis events — it’s more structural.

I tend to think of ethics during reporting in two ways. There are the micro issues — those are the choices you make in your individual reporting. If you’re the local CBS affiliate reporter and you see a guy who looks like he’s going to drown, you make the choice: Am I going to get involved?

And then the macro-level issues are more structural or institutional and sometimes as individuals we have no control over that. If there aren’t a sufficient number of local journalists in an area who have been following local development, you can’t expect CBS or The Washington Post to come in and understand that issue immediately. And they won’t do the sustained reporting looking at development issues over time because they’re not based there.

What do you think when reporters themselves become part of the story — for example, a reporting crew in Houston helped saved a trucker from drowning. Clearly they acted in a very human way, but I found myself wondering whether they should have been out there in the first place.

Ethics isn’t about a rubber stamp. We’re not saying: well, this is right and this is wrong. In the case you mentioned, you saw a local reporter and she wasn’t in an area where she would have been swept away, and that’s something we want to be very careful about.

In reporting, we don’t want to put ourselves in harm’s way because we don’t want to draw resources towards ourselves. In covering a crisis, we don’t want to make it worse.

But there is a need for local reporters to go out there and show what’s going on. Local reporters need to inform people — if someone can hear a broadcast on radio or if their TV was still working, they heard that there were over 10,000 calls into 911 centers and that it was very dangerous outside. That kind of reporting is important.

I have a tougher time with national news media coming in with 5-10 reporters and videographers. That’s when I find myself asking: Is it really necessary? I was watching storm coverage this morning with my 14-year-old daughter and she always questions: 'Why they are covering this and not that."

And this morning as we’re getting into the bottom half of the hour of national news and they’re still doing hurricane coverage, she said, “Is it really necessary?”

That’s an important reflection: Are they doing this because it’s important or because it’s thrilling? If national news outlets are dedicating six reporters to breaking news, how much are they going to dedicate down the road to how disaster relief funds are spent and whether climate change is playing a role?

It’s easy to chase the big, breaking hurricane story, but it’s a lot harder to do the reporting that shows how the hurricane affects people’s lives for the next several years.

Who do you think is doing it well right now?

The Washington Post is doing a good job from a national level. The Post [and some other national newsrooms] have suspended their paywall for storm coverage. That’s ethical decision-making too — how to ensure that people can access their coverage during the storm.

  • Profile picture for user Melody Kramer

    Melody Kramer

    Mel leads audience growth and development for the Wikimedia Foundation and frequently works with journalism organizations on projects related to audience development, engagement, and analytics.

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