Friday, March 24, 2006

Katrina, Jenin

In a review yesterday of Glenn Reynold's new book An Army of Davids for the Wall Street Journal, Adrian Wooldridge writes about blogs and concludes
They have helped to bring down both Trent Lott and Dan Rather; they have produced great reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan; and they have demonstrated, beyond doubt, that journalism is an activity, not a profession. [emphasis added]
That is an interesting way to phrase it--let's see how it applies.

Take the media coverage of Katrina last year. The Seattle Times reported in September 26 of last year:

That the nation's frontline emergency-management officials 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 news media and even some of the city's top officials, including the mayor and police superintendent.

The vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees — mass murders, rapes and beatings — 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 had the impression that at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred at the two sites," he [Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan] 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."

Three days later on September 29, The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer had a special feature on Katrina Media Coverage. At one point, Keith Woods, former newspaper reporter and editor at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and currently dean of the faculty at the Poynter Institute-- a school for journalists in Florida--gives his impression of the coverage. While you read, you can imagine him describing any big story, including perhaps the alledged massacre at Jenin or the situation of the Palestinian Arabs in Israel:
KEITH WOODS: Well, I did like the aggressiveness of the journalists throughout, I liked the fact that for a good part of this reporting the journalists brought themselves to the reporting a sense of passion, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding that they were not telling an ordinary story any more than the Sept. 11 attacks were an ordinary story. So I like the fact that journalism understood the size of this story from the very beginning and brought to bear the kinds of resources and the kind of passion in the coverage that we saw.
So the journalists brought with them "a sense of passion, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding...the kind of passion..."

Shortly afterwards, Hugh Hewitt, a host of a nationally syndicated radio talk, and a blogger, confronts Woods:
HUGH HEWITT: Well, Keith just said they did not report an ordinary story; in fact they were reporting lies. The central part of this story, what went on at the convention center and the Superdome was wrong. American media threw everything they had at this story, all the bureaus, all the networks, all the newspapers, everything went to New Orleans, and yet they could not get inside the convention center, they could not get inside the Superdome to dispel the lurid, the hysterical, the salaciousness of the reporting.

I have in mind especially the throat-slashed seven-year-old girl who had been gang-raped at the convention center — didn't happen. In fact, there were no rapes at the convention center or the Superdome that have yet been corroborated in any way.

There weren't stacks of bodies in the freezer. But America was riveted by this reporting, wholesale collapse of the media's own levees they let in all the rumors, and all the innuendo, all the first-person story because they were caught up in this own emotionalism. Exactly what Keith was praising I think led to one of the worst weeks of reporting in the history of American media, and it raises this question: If all of that amount of resources was given over to this story and they got it wrong, how can we trust American media in a place far away like Iraq where they don't speak the language, where there is an insurgency, and I think the question comes back we really can't. [emphasis added]
But what is particularly damning is Woods' response:
KEITH WOODS: Well, remember that we thought 5,000 people died in the twin towers in New York originally — more than 5,000. We thought the White House had been attacked in the early reporting of that story. The kind of reporting that journalists have to do during this time is revisionist. You have to keep telling the story until you get it right.

Journalism I think can be forgiven in this case for believing a police chief when he says something under those circumstances, for believing a mayor when he says something under those circumstances, and for simply giving the American public access to people who are living with their living.

And one more point here, it was horrible in the Superdome; it was horrible in the convention center. We got some facts wrong and that's important. But don't lose sight of the fact that in the end they were in fact telling a story about a tragedy unfolding in both of those places that was horrible by any measure.
Keeping in mind that Woods is being interviewed live and has to think on his feet, it is still an amazing statement to make: "You have to keep telling the story until you get it right." But given the emphasis that Woods has already placed on the nature of the reporting--"the journalists brought themselves to the reporting a sense of passion, a sense of empathy, a sense of understanding"--the goal of a reporter is to flesh out the human dimensions of the story, telling it over and over, adding more and more detail. As a result, due to the lack of factchecking there was a terrible discrepancy between what was reported and what actually happened.

Reading Woods' description of what he sees as journalism at its finest and the magnitude of the errors in reporting that resulted reminds one of the kind of misreporting that happened at Jenin in particular and that happens on a regular basis when Palestinian Arabs launch terrorist attacks or are prevented from killing innocent civilians.

What Israel needs to provide journalists is a reminder, ala Lieutenant General Honore:
Don't get stuck on stupid, reporters. We are moving forward. And don't confuse the people please. You are part of the public message. So help us get the message straight. And if you don't understand, maybe you'll confuse it to the people. That's why we like follow-up questions.
See followup at Since 1913, The Media Is Still Looking For The Cat

Crossposted at Israpundit

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