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