From ordeal of Katrina, the real story is told

September 11, 2005|By Paul Moore

NEARLY TWO weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, its surrounding parishes and Mississippi's Gulf Coast, interest in this tragic and far-reaching story has not diminished.

It is the largest natural disaster in American history. With thousands feared dead and hundred of thousands displaced from their homes, and with monumental recovery costs and staggering economic ramifications, it will have serious impact on life in the United States for years to come.

With the storm, the media has regained its confidence after its post-9/11 passivity and the fallout from several high-profile scandals. It has again become indispensable to the lives of many readers, viewers and listeners. Reporters have stayed ahead of public officials in getting information to the public, discovering and conveying what's really going on.

Whether it was coverage of the thousands of people going days without food and water in New Orleans, stories about the devastated cities of Biloxi and Gulfport, Miss., or reports about the fear and frustration of those trapped in their houses, the information gathered by reporters has been essential.

In my view, this is a clear example of why independent news gathering -- especially on-the-scene reporting -- is so important. The media has regained some of its credibility by asking tough questions and demanding specific answers. Getting the information first hand meant reporters could circumvent the filter of officialdom.

Those reporting from the ground also have been more emotionally engaged by what they covered, partly because of the level of suffering and frustration they have encountered and partly because of the difficult circumstances they experienced in getting the story.

At the outset, job conditions could hardly have been worse for journalists from The Sun and those from other newspapers, TV networks, cable organizations and radio outlets. Food and water was limited, and gasoline was scarce. Most cell phones didn't work, and satellite phones were erratic. Hotels were nonexistent, and personal safety was a constant issue.

Sun reporter Robert Little, who arrived in Louisiana the night before the hurricane struck, emphasized that his professional problems were nothing compared to those of people he reported on.

"The day I left, I gave away my remaining supply of food, water and gasoline to homeless families I met on the highway and in the shelters," He said. "You'd have thought I'd given them the cure to some terminal illness, with the way they started crying and praying. It made me feel guilty for having a credit card."

Veteran reporter Douglas Birch, who has covered wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya, was among a number of journalists sent to the devastated region by The Sun. As one of the reporters on hand during those critical hours and days after levee breaks caused massive flooding, Birch filed precise and detailed reports about the devastation.

His Sept. 2 article, "Those remaining fending for themselves," was the one of the first reports to document the breakdowns and demoralization in the New Orleans police department. His Sept. 3 article, "Staffers try to defend school against gang," was a riveting account of how clerical, custodial and cafeteria workers at a flooded city school were held hostage by an armed gang for almost three days. Birch continues to report from New Orleans.

Baltimore writer Daniel Mark Epstein, who reads The Sun and the New York Times, every day, said: "The Sun's reporting on the hurricane has been every bit as thorough as the Times."

The Sun, which has a proud history of responding to major breaking stories, has further distinguished itself with its reporting, photography and editing on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The newspaper's Katrina coverage has not been free of controversy, however.

A number of readers complained about the use of the word "refugee" in articles and headlines in The Sun and other newspapers to describe the thousands displaced because of the storm's destruction. Many called the term derogatory, demoralizing and even racist.

Webster's New World Dictionary defines "refugee" as a "person who flees home or country to seek refuge elsewhere, as in a time of war or of political or religious persecution." Other sources, such as The Oxford Desk Dictionary, define it as people seeking refuge from natural disasters.

Because "refugee" is commonly used to refer to disaster victims in other countries, many also believed that using the term to describe those displaced from New Orleans -- mostly African-Americans -- implied that they were not really Americans.

The Sun published a news story about the controversy on Sept. 5. After discussions among editors, the newspaper decided to stop using the term in connection with Katrina stories. A number of other newspapers have done the same.

In my view, this was the right decision. With other descriptive words available, it is not worth wasting time debating semantics with readers or ignoring the fact that continuing to use the word would likely increase reader resentment.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

The public editor

Readers who have concerns or comments may contact The Sun's public editor at 410-332-6364 or toll-free at 800-829-8000, ext. 6364; by fax at 410-783-2502; or by e-mail at publiceditor@balt sun.com.

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