Why did media ignore flooding in Louisiana?

While parts of Louisiana became literal islands, much of the country was cutoff from the story by scant media coverage.

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Reporters are lining beaches along the Florida panhandle this morning, making sure their mics pick up as much wind as possible as Tropical Storm Hermine approaches. It’s the top story on every morning news program – the journalistic convention for landfalling tropical systems (what do I mean? I wrote this lead last night, then confirmed with a quick flip through the channels over breakfast).

A few hundred miles west, Louisiana is still recovering. Some areas only recently arose from the flood waters that first submerged them three weeks ago. Personal possessions line streets in garbage heaps. Many schools are still closed.

The scope is staggering. Over 100,000 homes flooded in and around Baton Rouge and Lafayette; 13 people killed. When the waters crested, many small towns had become islands, separated from hospitals, gas stations, and grocery stores.

I know this largely because of family and friends on Facebook. From the outset, locals accused media of ignoring the story. We have to be careful about this – Southerners can be thin-skinned about perceived attacks from “the mainstream media,” including those greatly distorted or possibly fabricated.

[Related: Did ESPN Commentators Call Mississippians Poor?]

But I had to admit, I wasn’t seeing much coverage either. And eventually, the media turned a critical eye on itself. The New York Times waited three days to move their staff writer in New Orleans to the scene of the devastation 75 miles away. Public Editor Liz Spayd lamented the paper’s aggregation of media reports instead of conducting original reporting, concluding that “A news organization like The Times – rich with resources and eager to proclaim its national prominence – surely can find a way to cover a storm that has ravaged such a wide stretch of the country’s Gulf Coast.”

Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather took to Facebook to blame television news for choosing “the easy ratings of pundits playing the schadenfreude game in air conditioned studios” over sending reporters and resources to the flood zone.

I don’t have empirical data to analyze the amount and prominence of coverage compared to other natural disasters (though it’d be a fun study; anyone want to help?). For now, I’m relying on anecdotal evidence and observations of those in the industry. And that tells me the flooding in Louisiana was, and continues to be, drastically underreported.

Why?

To try to begin answering that question, I did my usual media scanning, and asked two meteorologists to help me fill in the gaps.

Continue reading “Why did media ignore flooding in Louisiana?”

Self-censorship, speaking up and showing empathy: Reflections on a tragic week

Why is it sometimes difficult to speak, and harder still to listen? An introspective look at Black Lives Matter after Sterling, Castile and Dallas.

 

People are being killed more quickly than we can react. Tugged from one tragedy to the next, it’s difficult to contextualize and reflect.

But we’re trying, even if it reads like whiplash. My friends have been vocal on social media. Politics and prayer. Anger and anguish. Hopelessness and hope.

It’s not just the news junkies, the political commentators, or the trolls. People who use Facebook primarily for relationships, photo albums, and cat videos are entering the fray. Speaking out is stretching out.

I respect the heck out of them.

I love to teach about the First Amendment, but we self-censor way more than the government ever will. We worry what others will think. Speaking out is stretching out our neck to get guillotined by our friends, family, faith body, coworkers, or prospective employers. Maybe by people we don’t even know. And so we stay silent.

[Related: Hate speech, social media and the marketplace of ideas]

We carefully curate our digital presence. For many of us, stepping into controversy isn’t part of the life we want to portray. That message we want to get off our chests is held down by social pressures, both external and of our own creation.

I’m talking about this today in the context of one perspective on one issue, but the principle is transferable. Continue reading “Self-censorship, speaking up and showing empathy: Reflections on a tragic week”

Katrina 10: Two stations, one studio

As someone who studies media, I was fascinated by local coverage of Hurricane Katrina. Television stations in the affected region began broadcasting uninterrupted coverage ahead of the storm, and many continued for almost a week afterward.

The situation was particularly unique at WAPT, the Jackson, Miss. ABC affiliate (which, full-disclosure, I would later work at for a brief time). The night before landfall, they welcomed sister Hearst station WDSU from New Orleans, and for days, the two news teams covered two cities on one network.

Hearst issued this release in September of 2005, describing the scene at WAPT and in Jackson generally. It doesn’t appear to be available online anymore, so for the 10th anniversary of Katrina, I’m reposting it below:

HURRICANE KATRINA
Candy Altman
Vice President, News/Hearst Television
09/13/05

It is Wednesday …the first Wednesday after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans. There is a frantic energy in the air and the halls are crowded at WAPT in Jackson Mississippi, where there is no running water and phone service is barely operable. I turn the corner walking swiftly toward the WDSU makeshift newsroom, and there I see the story of Hurricane Katrina in a microcosm. Longtime New Orleans anchorman Norman Robinson, a rock of a man in personality and stature, is crying uncontrollably. It’s his 8-year-old granddaughter. He can’t find her. She is the light of his life, and she was staying in an area damaged by the storm

And so goes another day in the new world of WDSU-TV, Hearst’s New Orleans television station. Reporters, photographers, producers, technicians all covering a story that dramatically impacts their own lives under working conditions which can best be described as primitive. Forced out of their home base by the threat of rising floodwaters and a tide of violence, the television station never stopped broadcasting, whether it was over the web or over the air. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day. This coverage re-creates the meaning of service to the community.

Continue reading “Katrina 10: Two stations, one studio”

Katrina 10: Our world changed and brought us closer together (among other stories)

Ten years ago, we came together.

~

I am a weather nerd. As a kid, I pretended I was covering severe weather from my bedroom (and sometimes the front yard in the middle of a monsoon). I learned about latitude and longitude tracking hurricanes, copying coordinates from The Weather Channel onto a photocopied map. In elementary school, I visited not one, but two of the local television meteorologists.

Storms frightened me and yet I was drawn to them. I swear I was destined to be a weatherman until I discovered how many calculus courses they have to take (College Algebra put a strain on this brain).

The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season remains the most active on record, with 28 tropical storms – so many that the list of names was exhausted, leading to six storms named for Greek letters, including one forming in December and another in January of 2006 – the latest on record. There were 15 hurricanes, 7 major hurricanes (Category Three or greater), and 4 Category Five hurricanes… all records. The strongest hurricane that season was also the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic (and, no, it’s not the one you are thinking).

The first forecast models for Katrina predicted a weak hurricane brushing the Florida coast and turning off into the Atlantic. Instead, Katrina went through the peninsula and into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. And when it finally did make its northern turn, it was toward the Gulf Coast.

Continue reading “Katrina 10: Our world changed and brought us closer together (among other stories)”

Mass layoffs or ‘job notifications’? Advance’s attempt to spin its Deep South newspaper guttings

Six hundred employees at four Deep South newspapers lost their jobs Tuesday, as Advance Publications continues its transition to primarily digital news. The cuts hit newsrooms surprisingly hard, especially in the wake of Advance’s earlier commitment to “significantly increase online news-gathering efforts” and offer “richer” “deeper” “robust” “enhanced printed newspapers on a scheduled of three days a week.”

In May, Advance announced limited print schedules and a revamped online approach for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the Birmingham News, the Mobile Press-Register, and the Huntsville Times.

[RELATED: Times-Picayune, part of New Orleans culture, scaling back; Alabama papers hit, too]

The Times-Picayune lost 49% of its news staff on Tuesday. The Birmingham News purged 60% of their journalists. In moves that cut roughly one-third of each newspaper’s overall staffing, it would seem that the actual news gatherers were hit disproportionately hard.

Advance promises that a portion of these positions will be refilled, no doubt by less experienced, more affordable reporters. Still, fulfilling the watchdog role of the press is awful tough work when there aren’t capable bodies there to do the groundwork.

And if yesterday’s events were any indication, the NOLA and AL media groups are going to have a lot of trouble covering their respective cities. Just look at how poorly they covered themselves…

Continue reading “Mass layoffs or ‘job notifications’? Advance’s attempt to spin its Deep South newspaper guttings”

Times-Picayune, part of New Orleans culture, scaling back; Alabama papers hit, too

Today is another in an almost decade-long line of sad days for the newspaper industry. Ownership of the New Orleans Times-Picayune announced Thursday that the newspaper will cut its print distribution to three days a week and shift resources to its website, NOLA.com. By the end of the afternoon, three more dailies in Alabama had been similarly downsized.

This is not just another small newspaper trimming down, or a competing paper in a large city getting out of the print business. With a daily circulation of over 150,000, the Times-Picayune is the largest newspaper to scale back printing dates and New Orleans is now the largest city in America without a daily newspaper, according to Poynter.

The move is part of a larger strategy for the newspaper’s ownership group, Advance Publications (often referred to as Newhouse, after the family that owns the company). Hours after the Times-Picayune news, Advance announced the same print schedule for the Birmingham News, Press-Register of Mobile, and the Huntsville Times – leaving three of the state’s four largest cities without a daily newspaper. The Alabama newspapers will place more emphasis on AL.com. Advance also recently consolidated a number of their Michigan newspapers and decreased printing days, eliminated home delivery, or took both measures in various markets.

The new NOLA Media Group promised more intensive online news-gathering “24 hours a day, seven days a week,” and feature-heavy print editions on Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday – “the most valuable days for the newspaper’s advertisers,” said NOLA’s president Ricky Matthews in the group’s official release Thursday morning.

Continue reading “Times-Picayune, part of New Orleans culture, scaling back; Alabama papers hit, too”