The first anniversary of hurricane Katrina has once again attracted an army of journalists to New Orleans, site of the worst natural disaster in American history.
While Tuesday's anniversary promises to bring even more attention to one of the most documented events in national journalism, many residents of the flood- ravaged Crescent City continue to insist that reporters are missing the story. The locals frequently complain that even after months of coverage by TV, print, and Internet outlets, the full dimension of the disaster has somehow eluded the media's yardstick.
Is this special pleading by disgruntled disaster victims, or an accurate measure of the Fourth Estate's institutional shortcomings?
As both a lifelong resident of south Louisiana and a veteran journalist, I've felt a special obligation to reflect upon the perceived divide between Katrina's reportage and its reality.
I became a newsman because I believe in the power of well-crafted words and images to bring compelling stories to life. Katrina deepened my pride in the profession's potential to do good. In the confusing days after last year's storm, as I watched colleagues risk their lives to bring the news of the devastation to an anxious world, their sacrifices renewed my sense that in humanity's dark hours, the work of the storyteller can be a high calling.
But living in the media bubble of post- Katrina south Louisiana, I've also discovered gaps between what the global media audience sees and what I know to be the larger truth. Although some sloppy reporting has figured into the distortion, the divide between Katrina's perception and its substance seems to have less to do with negligence or intentional bias, and more to do with the inherent limits of journalism as a craft.
Or so it occurred to me one day last February, as I traveled New Orleans neighborhoods that had stood in the path of Katrina's monumental levee breaks. What struck me about the area was its eerie silence, a natural consequence of communities completely emptied by the flood waters – and still desolate months after the storm.