I've listened with interest during the Hurricane Katrina coverage as politicians and others have blasted the media for not helping those they were covering. Okay that's not 100% true since I did see Geraldo helping people but I always discount Geraldo. He never is about helping others... like Oprah, it's all about Geraldo. But my dislike of Oprah and Geraldo is another whole post in itself.
I was listening to WJBC the other morning as Colleen Reynolds was defending the media saying that they can't be part of the news. They have to remain impartial and cover what's going on. It threw me back to my media law class in college where we read a case where a television crew showed up before the authorities and a person doused themselves with gasoline and lit a match. While all of this was going on the news crew videotaped and did nothing to try and stop the person or put them out after the match was lit. While this is at the extreme I think it is a similar if not as horrifying situation as what has occurred with Hurricane Katrina. It raises the question of if it is the media's responsibility to help someone and "become" the story or just record what is going on?
I wish I could remember and/or find what the court ruled, but if you ask me the media's job is to record the event and not take an active part in it. So I would agree with Colleen that technically the media isn't there to "be" the story. They are there to cover it but because of that coverage others should help.
At the same time as human beings we need to help our fellow human beings. My job may be to "cover the story" but as a human being I feel obligated to do what I can to help and if some news director or producer tells me otherwise then they can fire me or deal with it. If some guy is about to torch himself after dousing himself in gasoline you can darn well count on the fact that I'm setting down my camera and going to do something to stop it or at least try and put them out if they light the match before I can stop them.
In Hurricane Katrina's case the question is what could you do? Honestly not being there I can't say but I can tell you that if I had a case of water I would dole it out where I could. I would note where I saw or found people and then let the authorities know. On the way back through those I could fit in my boat or car are getting a ride. Yeah some may have to be left behind but I would do what I could do.
Maybe the media did this... maybe they didn't. I don't think anyone can paint all those covering the story with one broad stroke but I'm sure there were some who just ignored people so they could later tell someone how horrible it was and they felt helpless, forgetting to mention that they did nothing more then add a story to their resume tape.
So in the end what has caused this backlash against the media? Well first off I think the backlash is a bit minor but in the end the media should take some if not a lot of the blame themselves. It all falls into the unhealthy side of competition as well as lazy reporting and the dollar driving decisions.
Storms are what the military would call a target rich environment. There are all kinds of action opportunities in a storm... I love the fact that when a hurricane is coming ashore there is some poor sat truck operator, photographer, and reporter who are camped out using a concrete wall as a block so they can beam live images back from it. The best part is when the reporter is standing out in the gale force winds screaming at the top of their lungs. What has been accomplished in doing this? What is the news value? It's the same thing I asked when covering fires and accidents (which thank god we don't see as much of in the local media these days)
So after the storm the media formula works like this. First you cover the death and destruction. Then you get the politicians warmed up and finger pointing. Finally if you're really lucky there might be a racial angle which pops up where you can get good reaction.
Meanwhile the "ethnic" media. News organizations covering ethnic populations are doing stories that provide proactive solutions. See the CNN article called "Katrina through a different lens
". It's a great story and exactly the reason why most people are blaming the mainstream media for not helping or caring. The story tells how instead of pointing out death and destruction these outlets are doing stories on reuniting families and finding housing for those in need. Some media types will argue that this is too soft that we need to uncover the evil politicians who let this tragedy happen. I don't disagree but does it need to be the first thing? I mean it's like a multi car crash on the Murray Baker bridge. Do you get the accident cleared and the people taken to the hospital or do you start pointing fingers that if the car was better constructed and the bridge had wider lanes and.....
So while the discussions have begun in earnest over how the government will handle future disasters I truly hope that the national and local media look at how they cover disasters and maybe take a look at what some of these non-traditional media outlets are doing. I think those are the types of stories that the public wants.