Katrina Takes a
Toll on Truth, News Accuracy
Rumors supplanted accurate information and media magnified the
problem. Rapes, violence and estimates of the dead were wrong.
By Susannah Rosenblatt and James Rainey
Times Staff Writers
BATON ROUGE, La. Maj. Ed Bush recalled how he stood in the
bed of a pickup truck in the days after Hurricane Katrina,
struggling to help the crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome
separate fact from fiction. Armed only with a megaphone and scant
information, he might have been shouting into, well, a hurricane.
The National Guard spokesman's accounts about rescue efforts, water
supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the roar of a
24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then a
frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the unverified
"It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable
deeds were being done," Bush said Monday of the Superdome.
His assessment is one of several in recent days to conclude that
newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake
of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the overcrowded Superdome and
The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body
counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among
examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center
treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans'
Indeed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on
"Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for
five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people,
Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster
blamed the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of
telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports
to those most in need of the information. Race may have also played
The wild rumors filled the vacuum and seemed to gain credence with
each retelling that an infant's body had been found in a trash
can, that sharks from Lake Pontchartrainwere swimming through the
business district, that hundreds of bodies had been stacked in the
"It doesn't take anything to start a rumor around here," Louisiana
National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the
Superdome relief effort. "There's 20,000 people in here. Think when
you were in high school. You whisper something in someone's ear. By
the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor and the
rumor isn't the same thing it was when you started it."
Follow-up reporting has discredited reports of a 7-year-old being
raped and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang
members attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved
into a freezer at the Convention Center.
Hyperbolic reporting spread through much of the media.
Fox News, a day before the major evacuation of the Superdome began,
issued an "alert" as talk show host Alan Colmes reiterated reports
of "robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs
are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness."
The Los Angeles Times adopted a breathless tone the next day in its
lead news story, reporting that National Guard troops "took
positions on rooftops, scanning for snipers and armed mobs as
seething crowds of refugees milled below, desperate to flee. Gunfire
crackled in the distance."
The New York Times repeated some of the reports of violence and
unrest, but the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the
information could not be verified.
The tabloid OttawaSun reported unverified accounts of "a man seeking
help gunned down by a National Guard soldier" and "a young man run
down and then shot by a New Orleanspolice officer."
London's Evening Standard invoked the future-world fantasy film "Mad
Max" to describe the scene and threw in a "Lord of the Flies"
allusion for good measure.
Televised images and photographs affirmed the widespread devastation
in one of America's most celebrated cities.
"I don't think you can overstate how big of a disaster New Orleansis,"
said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a
Floridaschool for professional journalists. "But you can imprecisely
state the nature of the disaster.
Then you draw attention away
from the real story, the magnitude of the destruction, and you kind
of undermine the media's credibility."
Times-Picayune Editor Jim Amoss cited telephone breakdowns as a
primary cause of reporting errors, but said the fact that most
evacuees were poor African Americans also played a part.
"If the dome and Convention Center had harbored large numbers of
middle class white people," Amoss said, "it would not have been a
fertile ground for this kind of rumor-mongering."
Some of the hesitation that journalists might have had about using
the more sordid reports from the evacuation centers probably fell
away when New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts.
Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on "Oprah" a few days
after trouble at the Superdome had peaked.
Compass told of "the little babies getting raped" at the Superdome.
And Nagin made his claim about hooligans raping and killing.
State officials this week said their counts of the dead at the
city's two largest evacuation points fell far short of early rumors
and news reports. Ten bodies were recovered from the Superdome and
four from the Convention Center, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for
the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.
(National Guard officials put the body count at the Superdome at
six, saying the other four bodies came from the area around the
Of the 841 recorded hurricane-related deaths in Louisiana, four are
identified as gunshot victims, Johannessen said. One victim was
found in the Superdome but was believed to have been brought there,
and one was found at the Convention Center, he added.
Relief workers said that while the media hyped criminal activity,
plenty of real suffering did occur at the Katrina relief centers.
"The hurricane had just passed, you had massive trauma to the city,"
said Lt. Col. Pete Schneider of the Louisiana National Guard.
"No air conditioning, no sewage
it was not a nice place to be. All
those people just in there, they were frustrated, they were hot. Out
of all that chaos, all of these rumors start flying."
Louisiana National Guard Col. Thomas Beron, who headed security at
the Superdome, said that for every complaint, "49 other people said,
'Thank you, God bless you.' "
The media inaccuracies had consequences in the disaster zone.
Bush, of the National Guard, said that reports of corpses at the
Superdome filtered back to the facility via AM radio, undermining
his struggle to keep morale up and maintain order.
"We had to convince people this was still the best place to be,"
Bush said. "What I saw in the Superdome was just tremendous amounts
of people helping people."
But, Bush said, those stories received scant attention in newspapers
or on television.
staff writer Scott Gold contributed to this report.
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