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Published: Sunday, 10/9/2005

New era of disasters brings changes in media coverage

New Orleans police officers maneuver a rescue boat between the roofs of flooded houses in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward as Times Picayune reporter Alex Brandon, right of boat, holds onto a hurricane victim. New Orleans police officers maneuver a rescue boat between the roofs of flooded houses in the city's hard-hit Ninth Ward as Times Picayune reporter Alex Brandon, right of boat, holds onto a hurricane victim.
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By TOM HENRY

BLADE STAFF WRITER

AUSTIN, Texas Historians may someday look back and see how Hurricane Katrina changed an American tradition that goes beyond New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf of Mexico's storied coastline: The journalism landscape.

That was one of the resounding themes that came out of the 15th annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference that concluded here last Sunday. One seven-member panel that convened on the morning of Sept. 30 predicted anything from a renewed sense of faith in the media to the rise of entrepreneurial journalism, such as Internet blogging.

In the short-term analysis, there's little doubt the nation's eyes were glued to the TV screens and personal computer monitors as the many stories of helplessness emerged, only to be exacerbated by government impotency and a bureaucracy that tripped over itself.

CNN had an immediate 246 percent increase in viewership, compared to the week before Hurricane Katrina hit. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, relegated to strictly an online publication for days, got a whopping 30 million hits on its Web site in at least one 24-hour period. Thirty million hits.

But Mark Schleifstein, the paper's award-winning environmental writer, was quick to share the praise. While New Orleans was in chaos, a number of local talk radio stations set aside normal programming to give listeners a unified, moment-by-moment account of where they should be going and what they should be doing to seek help.

Those kind of practical uses of the media, plus the dogged pursuit of holding public officials accountable, prompted Jay Harris of the University of Southern California's journalism department to suggest many people have a renewed faith in the media because they 'have seen journalism work' better following Katrina. Mr. Harris, a former Knight Ridder executive, is chairman of USC's journalism department and director of the university's Center for the Study of Journalism and Democracy.

'The reporting was fantastic because it got the government to do its job when it failed,' added Ron Bailey, science correspondent for Reason magazine.

Yet all is not rosy. The media faces a bleak future with staffing cuts from the lackluster economy in general and in the New Orleans area in particular. The devastation wrought upon the region by two hurricanes in one month Katrina and its successor, Rita has caught Newhouse Newspapers, the Times-Picayune's owner, off guard with a temporary shortage in cash flow, due to its swift decline in advertising revenue.

Consequently, the newspaper will be forced to downsize in the coming months. 'We're trying to figure out what kind of a newspaper we're going to be while all of this [reporting on the aftermath of two hurricanes] is going on, which is amazing,' Mr. Schleifstein said.

But how has Hurricane Katrina changed attitudes in the nation's newsrooms?

Judy Muller, an ABC News correspondent and assistant USC journalism professor, said she wonders where the media was when former Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael Brown was up for nomination, despite his apparent lack of credentials for the job.

She said she couldn't imagine her network's Washington bureau devoting so much time to covering a nomination at that level back then. But now? Possibly.Will editors be more apt to consider airing or publishing the forward-looking, proactive story instead of reacting to a crisis?

Possibly, too. But in the case of New Orleans, there were eerie parallels between what ultimately happened and what was forecasted in advance in a 2002 Times-Picayne series co-authored by Mr. Schleifstein, who said his son now jokingly refers to him as 'Nostradamus.'

The four-day series, entitled 'Washing Away,' essentially laid out the vulnerability of the New Orleans levee system and predicted mass casualties if another Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane hit the city. It said the metro area's evacuation plan was inadequate and that more than 100,000 people had no means of transportation to escape.

Mr. Schleifstein said he was challenged by newsroom authority when he pitched the idea for the series. He said one Times-Picayune editor down played it as 'just more of Mark Schleifstein's disaster porn.'

The reporter said he defended the idea by responding with this: 'Just like real porn, the eye is in the beholder. And there's 100,000 people who need to know there's no evacuation plan for them.'

As it turned out, the forewarning was not enough. The levees were not stabilized enough to withstand more than a Category 3 hurricane. Plans to build a high-speed 'bullet train' that would have shuttled people to high ground on the city's north side were not funded. 'The dilemma was trying to justify spending money on something that might not happen,' Mr. Schleifstein said. Mayor Ray Nagin essentially 'punted' when Katrina hit by using one of his only remaining options: Calling for a mandatory evacuation.

'They expected the feds would be there in two days and that didn't happen,' Mr. Schleifstein said.

Merrill Brown, founder and prinicipal of MMB Media, said the need to keep the public informed amidst the height of a crisis is 'why, in theory, unlimited news hole is so important.'

Enter blogging, one of the fastest-growing modes of communication. By allowing people to create their own individualized Web sites, it can 'get to the heart of what you're getting from the man on the street,' said Mr. Brown, who also is national editorial director of News for the 21st Century program at the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education.

While it gives a new entrepreneurial stride to journalism providing a seemingly endless, electronic platform for would-be publishers Mr. Brown acknowledged that blogging should not be used as anything more than a tool to garner tips that need to be verified. In other words, the value of good journalism should not be minimized, he said.

Andrew Revkin, an award-winning New York Times environmental writer and best-selling author, said the media still gives people a picture that's 'highly imperfect,' whether it is the rush to report what public officials claimed was happening to Katrina victims inside the Louisiana Superdome or 'being too focused on the Washington end of things.'

Environmental journalism grew with the environmental movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, with its crisis-driven problems and more distinct lines between those who were perceived as heroes or villains, Mr. Revkin said.

Today's crises are more subtle. Rather than a chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India, attention has been focused on the far-reaching and nebulous topic of climate change. There's no Exxon Valdez running aground in Alaska.

'But there are multiple sources of nonpoint runoff without a drunken captain,' he said.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 412-724-6079.



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