In the chaos that ensued after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, rumors began to fly among the thousands of residents crowded into the city's Superdome and Convention Center. There were rumors that armed thugs were murdering and raping evacuees at these shelters, allegedly including a seven-year-old girl whose body was found in a bathroom with her throat cut. Witnesses even came forward to tell of the horrors.
"They are raping babies, raping women, killing people," said one distraught woman.
Some city authorities, frustrated with the overcrowding, repeated the rumors, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. "They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' Superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."
The media picked up these comments and even reported some of the rumors of criminal violence as fact. Now it turns out, many of the most sensational reports were untrue.
Authorities say there was one verified homicide inside the Convention Center, and no murders inside the Superdome. Also, there were no substantiated reports of rapes, according to Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Thibodeaux. "I've heard of situations and rumors of rapes and murders and complete lawlessness in both the Superdome and the Convention Center and I can tell you that I was at both those locations and those are just false, those things didn't happen."
How could rumors be reported as fact?
Stephen Hess is a media expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
"You always have situations like this in any crisis, whether its natural disaster or man-made disaster,” said Mr. Hess. “Particularly in global television, where reporters ‘parachute in.’ They don't know the neighborhood, they have to work quickly and under terrible circumstances. They listen to people who can't possibly know precisely what the information is, they pick up rumor. At their best they try to sort it out."
And it was difficult to sort rumors from fact amidst the destruction in New Orleans. Much of the city was flooded, telephone service had broken down -- factors that prevented journalists from checking all their facts.
Mr. Hess says while he believes the press in general did a good job of portraying the chaos in New Orleans, the mistakes will hurt its reputation.
"The consequence of things like this is that there is less trust in the media. This has been shown for this reason and other related reasons for some time. In fact, the polls that came out the other day showed a slight blip up [temporary increase] in public trust of the press this year. But in general in recent years it's been a pretty sharp line down, and this contributes to it, of course."
While the reports of violence were largely untrue, much of the misery created by Katrina was all too real.