When New Orleans was struck by Hurricane Katrina late last month, there were news reports that the city had descended into anarchy. Some New Orleans officials said armed thugs went on a rampage of murder and rape, victimizing helpless residents. Some also claimed up to 10,000 people had died because of the storm and the subsequent lack of immediate emergency assistance. It turns out these reports were either greatly exaggerated or simply untrue.
In the chaos that ensued after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, rumors began to fly among the thousands of desperate residents crowded into the city's Superdome and Convention Center waiting to be evacuated.
There were rumors that roving bands of 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. Rumors also spread that hundreds of New Orleans residents had died from the lack of food, water and medical attention, and that their bodies were stacked in the Superdome basement.
There was no shortage of people who spoke to reporters about these horrors. "They are raping babies, raping women, killing people," one person said.
Some city authorities repeated these accounts to the news media, leaving the impression that they were fact. At one point, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin predicted the death toll from Katrina would be as high as 10,000 people, an estimate that was widely reported. Later, in a television interview, his frustration at the slow pace of evacuation of the Superdome and Convention Center spilled out:
"They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin' superdome for five days, watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people," he said.
The media picked up these comments and reported some of the rumors of criminal violence as fact. Now it turns out, many of the most sensational reports were untrue.
Authorities now say there was one verified homicide inside the Convention Center, and no murders inside the Superdome. The Los Angeles Times reports that state officials say the number of dead at the city's two largest evacuation centers fell far short of the early news reports. The officials say 10 bodies were recovered from the Superdome and four from the Convention Center. Also, there were no substantiated reports of rapes. Louisiana National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Jacques Thibodeaux was at the Convention Center and Superdome.
"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," he said.
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 it's a natural disaster or man-made disaster, particularly in global television, where reporters parachute in. They don't know the neighborhood, they have to work quickly and under terrible circumstances," he said. " 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.
However, American University communications professor, W. Joseph Campbell faults reporters for not doing a more thorough job. "I think that blaming the circumstances strikes me as passing the buck a bit," he said. "Reporters are out there often in very trying circumstances to cover the story as best as they can, but to seize upon wild estimates or guesstimates and then go with those and then present a picture, as was presented of New Orleans of mayhem in the streets, or in the Superdome, does a major disservice to the public and the profession. Journalism deserves better."
There is some evidence that the misinformation may have hampered relief efforts. The New York Times reported Thursday that the real or rumored accounts of criminal violence and mayhem changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, grounded helicopters and led police officers to quit their jobs.
Professor Campbell says this is the danger that results from what he called "sloppy reporting". "Journalists have lived for decades with breaking news, and deadline reporting and it's just a question of whether you can treat it cautiously or you want to go winging it (eds: taking a chance). And I think there was a lot of winging it in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans," he said. "Granted, the sources they were relying on were on the face of it legitimate sources, the mayor and the police commissioner, but reporters have a duty to press and to probe, and to say 'OK where did you get that, where is the data from, where are the bodies stacked in the basement in the Superdome'? Yes, it sounds terrible, but it turned out to be not quite that bad. But I'm afraid the lingering mental images from New Orleans are going to be based on that kind of apocalyptic view, the mayhem in the streets and the Superdome, and it just wasn't the case."
But Brookings Institution media expert Stephen Hess says overall the press did a good job of portraying the situation in New Orleans. "It's hard to give the media these days credit for an exceptionally good job, but if you really think of the general picture they painted, and gave the world and the American people a sense of the extent of this horrible disaster, they did a fine job. When you start to get into fine print you will find, of course, many errors - they usually call the press 'the first draft of history.' But I would be rather cautious of making a sort of broad-brush stroke criticism of the American media and of the world media too," he said.
However, Mr. Hess acknowledged that the mistaken accounts which emerged in the immediate aftermath of Katrina may further erode Americans' trust of the media. At the same time, it is the press itself, both broadcast and print, that has been coming out in the past few days to correct any errors in reporting.