The Katrina hurricane disaster that devastated New Orleans, and made us all feel a little less sure of our country’s ability to respond to a crisis, does not look any better with time and distance. The images and realities remain vivid: The government’s “too little, too late” response; the resulting brief, but no less frightening, breakdown of civil order; and the recollection of bodies lying in a convention center whose hallways the broadcast and cable industries know extremely well.
Those memories have been rekindled as the media focused the past couple of weeks on a five year-out retrospective. The convention center version of Dante’s Inferno is perhaps the most enduring image of the tragedy, and remains among the most painful for so many in the television industry who figuratively camped out there during industry conventions. It was a base of operations from which to embrace a city that could not have been a more welcoming host.
Those memories of New Orleans before Katrina were mostly of the glitz and glamour of the exhibit floor, panel sessions and industry award galas, or hallway conversations about the latest show clearance, or where to go after sampling the array of show-related parties that spread themselves out over the French Quarter.
But what that Katrina coverage, and the more recent man-made disaster in the Gulf, have brought into sharper focus is how skillfully the news media can still be moved when calamity occurs. For all the knocks on chasing the latest Paris Hilton arrest or Mel Gibson moment—and many are deserved—time and again, the news media has risen to the challenge and provided journalism that touches hearts and minds and, especially in the case of Katrina, refuses to let the government stick to a “great job” story when all the evidence points to the contrary.
The coverage of Katrina came before the economy imploded and the news business was forced to start reinventing itself. That makes the high marks earned by the major media coverage of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, and three-month oil spill, in a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism content analysis worth citing.
As PEJ pointed out, the story was a tough one, with complicated and competing story lines out of London, Washington and the Gulf. It was a story that required a lot of new terminology, like trying to explain the difference between a “junk shot” and a “top kill.” One big difference between Katrina and BP was that the latter story came from news operations battered by their own perfect storm of a tanked economy and an industry reeling from a sea change in how its audience gets the news. And network news divisions have been forced to reckon with shifting corporate expectations from loss leaders to contributors to the company’s bottom line.
That is what makes PEJ’s conclusions about the BP coverage so impressive. It was a long-running saga that did not break down along particular ideological or political lines, that required explaining often highly technical procedures, and to an audience whose appetite for the story may have even exceeded the large amounts of time and space devoted to it, particularly by television, said PEJ.
Conceding that the industry was having to cope with depleted staffs and revenues, PEJ concluded: “News organizations displayed real staying power as events continued to unfold. They spent considerable time reporting from the Gulf and humanizing the crisis. They largely avoided the temptation to turn the disaster into a full-blown political fingerpointing story. And in many cases they used their Websites’ interactive features to illuminate aspects of the story that would have been harder to digest in print or broadcast formats.”
That sounds to us like a combination of the medium’s historic strengths with new Web smarts. It also sounds like a recipe for success.
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