August 31, 2005

Katrina Coverage: Dining at the Media Buffet

Pity the poor people of New Orleans and other Gulf communities, but their misfortune provides evidence that the American media diet has become an all-you-can-eat buffet that's rich enough for even the most gluttonous consumer yet still offers morsels tasty enough for more discerning diners.

In other words, like at any decent Southern calorie trough, it's a quantity vs. quality equation: You can eat yourself to death with mac 'n' cheese or just nibble on some veggies.

Here's the Hurricane Katrina menu:

 The Carb Platters: All big-story coverage these days starts with the wires, which stream endlessly into Yahoo and Google, reporting the news in incremental segments, updating death tolls and damage estimates and providing the canned quotes so familiar to this type of story: "'It's a lot of chaos right now,' Louisiana state police Director H.L. Whitehorn said."

 The Prix Fixe Dinners: Newspapers serve up these full plate meals based on traditional recipes - a mainbar (taken mainly from the wires), a couple of sidebars, a sampling of photos, some graphics and, in the last few years, teases to more coverage on the web. The best of these plates, like today's New York Times, contains powerful photographs and evocative writing (""the labyrinthine mass of oleander and jasmine, lantana and mimosa" -- Faulkner). Much of this fare is tediously routine, like in today's San Francisco Chronicle, which devoted it's entire front-page to the hurricane aftermath, enough room for quote after clichéd quote: "It looks like a bomb hit it …"; "It's downtown Baghdad."; "It's like being in a Third World country." OK, I got it.

New Orleans' local newspaper, the Times-Picayune portrayed the real weakness of a ground-zero newspaper during a disaster: It could not publish. T-P staffers were forced to flee their newsroom, and their presses, and were reduced to publishing a PDF via the paper's web site. (I'm not trying to detract from the what I'm sure is the immense workload and tension T-P journalists are under at the moment, but emphasizing instead precarious reliability of print in a disaster. Even had the T-P managed to publish, as the San Francisco Chronicle did in truncated fashion after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, who would have been left in New Orleans to read it. A printed version of the T-P would have been for history, and ego, alone.

 The Snack Bar: This, of course, is television. While I was running on a treadmill at the gym before the storm made land, I watched (without sound) an hour of Anderson Cooper doing stand-ups in the wind alternating with video of cars crawling across causeways. Less than fascinating. TV news has become like traffic itself - it's a necessary fact of life, it's annoying but tolerable in small doses and it's eventually meaningless.

UPDATE: Tim Goodman of the S.F. Chronicle summarizes TV hurricane coverage: "A truism of television is that you're either a person who likes to watch hurricane coverage on television, or you think it just looks really wet and windy."

 The Home Cooking Corner: Even today, "Katrina" is still the No. 1 search term on Technorati. Everyone blogged Katrina - from the Times-Picayune (which started writing from the newsroom and then turned its blog into an online forum for citizens) to Instapundit.

There are plenty of digital video and stills available, some of it compelling by its very amateurishness, such as this 3-minute walk through the abandoned downtown of Gulfport, Miss., but much of the so-called "citizen journalism" photography was little better than the millions of bad snapshots made everyday by every-day people. See these photos collected by the Times-Picayune as examples (click on Citizen Journalist Photos link.)

Homespun photography, which provided first-hand documentation of the London bombings [ Read: London Bombings: The Unread Newspaper.] couldn't compete with the pros in a widely covered disaster. Part of the appeal of citizen journalism is the ability to extend coverage into areas where professionals are not, either because of immediacy or access. (The citizen video above is compelling because its makers went in ahead of the pros.) Head to head, in something like photography where skillful use of technology matters, the pros will win.

UPDATE: Read how the St. Pete Times used its staff to make one of the most memorable photos of the hurricane. Quote: "As soon as he walked out the door, there was news all around him." It's all about being there.

How was the meal? Satisfied? I am. But I wouldn't be if I ate at just one serving station. Each item on the media menu has its strength, each its weakness.

Jeff Jarvis (Buzzmachine) was quoted in today's New York Times on the frailty of both broadcast and print in a natural disaster. He said (my emphasis):

"Owning broadcast towers and printing presses were useless. The Web proved to be a better media in a case like this."

True enough (as we'll unfortunately find out some day in San Francisco). The web also has its weaknesses, though. All that good stuff that's online, all that breadth and depth, is useless to someone without power or a computer. For refugees or even the displaced middle class living in motels, TV and radio rule.

Finally, the dispersal of Katrina coverage across so many platforms points to the absolute necessity for news companies - and this means you, newspapers - to become literate and capable in these various disciplines of reporting, distribution and connection to community.

Tags: , , ,

Posted by Tim Porter at August 31, 2005 01:47 PM

Tim, I think the Times Picayune web coverage has been extraordinary given the circumstances. Their work has the immediacy and intimacy of a blog, while having the authority of a major new outlet. They were among the first to see and understand the consequences of the levee break.

They have local news that really pinpoints conditions in various neighborhoods. If I were a displaced New Orlean, this is the place I'd go for news.

It's possible that their web news paper is a precursor of what's to come.

Posted by: JennyD on September 1, 2005 06:12 AM
Post a comment