The media's post-Katrina flaw: boredom
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.
It's the kind of quiet not easily conveyed on cable news channels, which abhor silence like the vacuum that it is. Though these soundless streets are the very texture of this tragedy, they don't make marketable television, nor is their quality easily conveyed in newspapers and magazines.
And although journalism is frequently derided for its embrace of mindless repetition, the industry's understandable desire for what is new and interesting has not inclined it to capture the frequent monotony of existence in post-Katrina New Orleans.
During one drive through the most damaged areas of New Orleans, a fellow journalist logged 85 miles on his odometer without seeing any real signs of life. The senses numb at the horrifying redundancy of such destruction, which is a kinder way of saying that the long-term aftermath of a disaster can be quite boring.
There are encouraging signs of a rebound in several areas of New Orleans, as I was reminded on a trip to the city a couple of weeks ago.
Even so, in the largely unrehabilitated neighborhoods near the levee breaks, a heartbreaking ennui – the sense that this universe of the damned will not change – has driven much of the despair in post-Katrina New Orleans. But to ask a news organization to cover boredom presents a paradox that even journalism, with all its logistical and technological magic, cannot fully resolve.
If the everyday challenges of post- Katrina Louisiana fail to register in the global media machine, it is perhaps because journalism, by its nature, sees the world as a series of dramatically packaged episodes rather than the dry continuum that a recovery from disaster can be.
Tuesday, we in Louisiana will star in Episode 366, the Katrina anniversary. Then we will prepare for another day post-Katrina, when the cameras leave us once again.
• Danny Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.