The Highest Standards of Journalism

In my previous article entitled Failure on Every Level, I detailed some of the failings in the events leading up to and during the horrific images and stories we were presented on our TV screens during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was obvious from these events that New Orleans was failed by the Mayor’s office, Governor’s office and FEMA. However, it appears that I left someone out that may have failed us all during that same time.

A recent article in The Time-Picayune, the local newspaper of New Orleans that has been getting a lot of press lately for detailing much of what led up to the events of earlier this month, presents us with a review of the stories coming out of the national media during the initial days following the flooding. What is telling about the review is that it not only did not detail a list of stories that were missed by the media at the time but how much they got wrong.

This is a strong indictment of the current state of the national news organizations. So willing were they to get the most sensational stories out on the airwaves that they appear to have gone into reporting urban legends and recycling anything they heard as factual. None of it was vetted or checked in any way. Some of the facts are quite surprising, especially to us who watched with horror at what was appearing to happen.

Remember the deaths at the Superdome and Convention Center? The bodies that were being stacked up on top of each other at the convention center and nearly 200 corpses on ice at the Superdome? The real story is that 6 people died inside the Superdome, 4 from natural causes, one from an overdose and other from an apparent suicide. The Convention Center saw 4 dead bodies, only one of those having been slain. The others appear to have been natural causes.

That the nation’s front-line emergency management believed the body count would resemble that of a bloody battle in a war is but one of scores of examples of myths about the Dome and the Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans’ top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent. As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

“I think 99 percent of it is bulls—,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. “Don’t get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn’t see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. … Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved.”

The state Health and Human Services Department administrator was equally surprised to find a different story at the two sites.

Dr. Louis Cataldie, the state Health and Human Services Department administrator overseeing the body recovery operation, said his teams were inundated with false reports about the Dome and Convention Center. “We swept both buildings several times, because we kept getting reports of more bodies there,” Cataldie said. “But it just wasn’t the case.”

But that is not all that was reported. We were also told that large gangs were forming and running roughshot over the city, looting, raping and killing. People feared for their lives and mob rule set free to run the city in place of adequate law enforcement. The real story is a much different tale. And many officials are upset about the new media so easily reporting what wasn’t true and not even checking up on the stories after the fact. There is a lot of information in the article that for the sake of brevity I’m not going to detail (however I do suggest it be read by everyone), but I would like to examine one thing that was stated by Eddie Jordan.

Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan said authorities had confirmed only four murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina – making it a typical week in a city that anticipated more than 200 homicides this year. Jordan expressed outrage at reports from many national media outlets that suffering flood victims had turned into mobs of unchecked savages.

“I had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites,” he said. “It’s unfortunate we saw these kinds of stories saying crime had taken place on a massive scale when that wasn’t the case. And they (national media outlets) have done nothing to follow up on any of these cases, they just accepted what people (on the street) told them. … It’s not consistent with the highest standards of journalism.”

The highest standards of journalism. That is what is expected of the national news media outlets, isn’t it? After all, these are the guys with the resources and integrity to deliver the news to us in a way that we can believe we are getting the goods. CNN, ABC, CBS, FOX. The ‘alphabet soup’ of news organizations. Yet, with the number of bad reporting, falsified stories, inadequate investigation of documented evidence, can we believe what we are seeing on these networks anymore?

What has happened? Has the demand for ratings, something that news organizations never concerned themselves with in the earlier days of broadcast news, finally pushed these organizations over the edge to start reporting questionable stories? Is it the internet and the rapid pace at which news can now be disseminated pushing them to get stories on the air and out to their audience so they don’t appear slow and antiquated that is the real culprit? Or are the leaders of the news departments themselves just not as grounded in ‘The Highest Standards of Journalism’ as their previous leaders were, causing more and more questionable news to slip through? Or could it be the furthering blending of news and opinion that has been going on on stations like CNN, Fox and MSNBC that are further eroding what journalism really is meant to be?

I think that soon a hard look is going to have to be done by the viewers of these outlets and we will have to either push them back to these ethical journalistic standards or abandon the idea completely and doing all of the vetting ourselves from now on. At least, until we can start to see resurgence of the quality of reporting that many of us can still remember we are going to have to watch everything that any news outlet says going forward.

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