Media helped perpetuate post-Katrina rumors

Dubious accounts from New Orleans included inflated body counts, unverified rape reports and unconfirmed sniper attacks


BATON ROUGE, La. -- Maj. Ed Bush recalled standing in the bed of a pickup truck - armed only with a megaphone and scant information - in the days after Hurricane Katrina struck, struggling to help the crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome separate fact from fiction.

The National Guard spokesman's accounts of rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then the news media recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports.

"It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Bush said this week, referring to the Superdome.

His assessment is one of several in recent days to conclude that newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior after Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the crowded Superdome and convention center.

Monday, The Times-Picayune of New Orleans described inflated body counts, unverified rape reports and unconfirmed sniper attacks as examples of "scores of myths about the Dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and some of New Orleans' top officials."

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin told a national television audience on Oprah three weeks ago of people in the Superdome "for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people."

Journalists and officials who have reviewed the Katrina disaster blame the inaccurate reporting in large measure on the breakdown of telephone service, which prevented dissemination of accurate reports to those most in need of them.

Race also might have played a factor. The wild rumors seemed to gain credence with each retelling. They included accounts that an infant's body had been found in a trash can, that sharks from Lake Pontchartrain were swimming through the business district and that hundreds of bodies had been stacked in the Superdome basement.

Follow-up reporting has discredited reports that a 7-year-old was raped and killed at the convention center, that roving bands of armed gang members attacked the helpless and that dozens of bodies were 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 host Alan Colmes repeated reports of "robberies, rapes, car-jackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are roaming the streets at night, hidden by the cover of darkness."

The next day, in its lead story, the Los Angeles Times reported 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, although the newspaper usually was more careful to note that the information could not be verified.

Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss pointed to telephone breakdowns as a primary cause of reporting errors but he said the fact that most evacuees were poor blacks 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 reticence journalists might have had about using the more sordid reports from the evacuation centers might have vanished when New Orleans' top officials seemed to confirm the accounts.

Nagin and Police Chief Eddie Compass appeared on Oprah a few days after the trouble at the Superdome peaked.

Relief workers said that although the news media exaggerated criminal activity after Katrina, there was plenty of suffering at the shelters.

"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."

Susannah Rosenblatt and James Rainey write for the Los Angeles Times.

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