New York Times media genius David Carr wrote an excellent column in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that should be reread today. In the dizzying swirl of terrible rumor that posed as news that late summer and fall, Carr took a hard look at news creators such as Tucker Carlson and Greta Van Sustern, who had repeated unsubstantiated but compelling reports of rape, murder, and widespread looting — none of which was ultimately proven to have occurred, at least on the lurid scale so bitingly promised.
The column begins:
DISASTER has a way of bringing out the best and the worst instincts in the news media. It is a grand thing that during the most terrible days of Hurricane Katrina, many reporters found their gag reflex and stopped swallowing pat excuses from public officials. But the media's willingness to report thinly attributed rumors may also have contributed to a kind of cultural wreckage that will not clean up easily.
Carr adds his own perspective from the day the Twin Towers fall. Victims still covered from ash told him that they’d seen men fighting on ledges, women tossing babies out windows, and other ultimately unsubstantiated stories. In the relative calm of the next few days, the real story began to emerge: People trapped were far too high to be seen in any detail. The ultimate record of 9/11 was no less horrifying, but far more true.
Haiti is undeniably suffering mightily now. And there are powerful stories being written that will indeed go down as the first draft of history. But before people begin to draw broad conclusions, beware the perils of reporting on the first days of disaster. Read, watch, and donate — by all means — but history and reporters like Carr remind us to reserve final judgment. Victims deserve both immediate attention and then, when time permits, a more thoughtful referendum, and hopefully one that helps prevent future disaster.
(Admittedly: It can also be hard to cover a disaster even decades later. When I worked in Cambodia, a famous anecdote for cub reporters was the tale of a breathless journo, still wet from the jungle, hollering about his hot scoop. “They slit their throats with palm fronds!” he yelled as he banged out his copy. The details didn’t turned out to be true. Often the best stories — and the most horrifying details — don’t necessarily check out. History is a marathon, news is a sprint.)
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