How long should newspapers continue to cover the anniversaries and milestones related to major events that occurred outside their geographic areas?
That was the question asked by a talented young journalist who also happens to be the daughter of a high school classmate.
The event that triggered her inquiry: Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans and the Mississippi coast. The reason? Her hometown, like mine in Mississippi, was crushed under the surge, leaving behind an image of the Gulf Coast that is printed so indelibly in the minds of those who lived through it that two years or 20 years could not make the pictures disappear.
Certainly this is true for people such as her father and mother and her sister, who lost their homes, as well as other relatives who suffered the same fate. Or my sister and two brothers and many nieces and nephews and cousins who returned when the winds died and the water receded to find a slab where their houses used to be, or simply a skeleton of what was once a place of happy times.
She was writing because, as she put it, “my newsroom has been discussing plans for coverage of the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. I’ve heard several reporters and editors say they don’t think the second anniversary warrants coverage.”
I’m withholding the name of this young journalist to avoid causing her grief in her newsroom, which is located in the Midwest.
Obviously, she and I come to this question with deep personal involvements. We are talking about the place where our roots were planted, where family and friends can trace their histories for generations, where as children we learned to love the smell of the sea breeze and the taste of blue point crabs and fresh oysters and all kinds of gumbo.
But let’s look beyond those recollections for a moment.
Katrina was the largest and most costly natural disaster in our history. And the scars she left will be with us for years and years. The rebuilding of cities, including one of America’s most unique — New Orleans — will be a work in progress long, long after people have forgotten the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s follies and “Good Job” Brownie. The deaths of loved ones and the scattering across the country of thousands of others will never be forgotten by those who were left to mourn.
How can we not provide readers with a look at what has happened during these two years?
Anniversaries such as Katrina’s give us the opportunity to not just look back, but to look ahead, to tell the stories of those whose lives have been in limbo waiting for resolutions that seem to never arrive, those who have stayed and those who were forced to start anew in a strange city.
It’s about journalism written in the language of the heart. How can we ever forget those hundreds of short “Profiles in Grief” that The New York Times ran day after day following Sept. 11? We can re-examine our own vulnerabilities when it comes to natural disasters, or we can help others understand how casino gambling has emerged as the economic savior for a devastated area.
The best stories often begin with questions.
What lessons can we teach our readers about insurance and about their own policies? What has happened to the churches that were destroyed or damaged, and what role has religion played in the recovery process?
What are the new building codes like? Are we seeing new communities created out of architects’ dreams? Why do people stay knowing that someday another hurricane will find its way into the Gulf? What is that connection, and why is it so strong?
What have we learned from the mistakes that were made, nationally and locally? Who are some of the heroes, post-Katrina, and why? Have businesses, including the media, lost employees because they do not want to ever go through this again? And how are they recruiting new people? The list of questions is nearly endless.
Every editor, sometime in his or her career, has heard from readers on the day after the anniversary of historic events, either offering thanks for the coverage, or lashing out because the paper didn’t do anything or didn’t run the stories on the front page.
Readers everywhere cling to those moments in their past. If they weren’t there, they shared the pain and the losses and the fears, or in some cases celebrated, with all those who were.
We witnessed this so vividly after Katrina when thousands of people came from across the land to help, and thousands of others donated money.
We witnessed it after Sept. 11 when we all became New Yorkers and Washingtonians and, certainly, Americans with a newly awakened sense of patriotism.
How long should we continue to mark such events? For those whose souls have been badly bruised by what they have experienced or seen, the answer is easy: A whole lot longer than two years.
And I believe readers everywhere would agree.