A Matter Of Time

Did the media, so often accused of over-hyping hurricane stories, not grasp the enormity of Katrina quickly enough? On Aug. 25, when it hit south Florida, Katrina was a Category 1 storm, a designation that made it seem insignificant to storm-saturated residents of Florida and the Gulf Coast. Meteorologists effectively dismissed it as a "minimal hurricane." Residents largely stayed in their homes.

And then Katrina battered Miami-Dade County, flooding heavily-populated areas and leaving several dead.

That was Thursday, four days before the storm would make landfall in and around New Orleans. The networks led their evening newscasts that Friday with Katrina, but the story didn't dominate their coverage. It was still just a hurricane story: serious damage, minor casualties, but not a catastrophe. ABC, which devoted the most time to the story that night, ran a segment on how the storm had "baffled meteorologists" and "surprised the experts."

The next day, Friday, Aug. 26, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco declared a state of emergency in Louisiana. By Saturday, the storm had been upgraded to Category 3, and was moving through the Gulf of Mexico, gradually strengthening as it approached the Gulf Coast. No one was sure where the storm would end up or how strong it might be. Saturday's network newscasts led with Katrina; television and print stories focused on speculation about the storm's potential impact. "(Katrina) could become a Category 4 monster before striking the coast early Monday," wrote The Associated Press' Mary Foster, echoing meteorologists.

By 7 a.m. the next day, the storm had again defied expectations, having evolved not into a Category 4 monster but a Category 5 storm of devastating power. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation of his city. At least one newspaper, the Lafayette Daily Advertiser, warned that the levees might not hold, and by late that evening, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, waves were crashing over the Lake Pontchartrain levee. Windblown reporters became ubiquitous on cable news, and the network newscasts moved many of their reporters to the Gulf Coast, including CBS' John Roberts, who sub-anchored the Sunday night newscast from New Orleans.

The day after, all hell broke loose: Katrina made landfall as a Category 4, a levee gave way, and New Orleans, in Roberts' words, became a "flooded ghost town." Still, the conventional wisdom was that the city had dodged a bullet, thanks to the storm's last-minute jog to the east. "City Saved" read a graphic on ABC's newscast, where Charles Gibson said that the "nightmare scenario of an entire city underwater did not happen." Brian Williams, hosting the NBC Nightly News from New Orleans, talked about "where the worst fears didn't come true." The coverage was comprehensive but not remarkable. This was still, for the most part, just a hurricane story, albeit a big one.

That would change by Tuesday. "We knew it was bad," said CBS Evening News anchor Bob Schieffer, "tonight we are beginning to understand just how bad." Reports of looting, dead bodies floating in the streets, and desperate survivors dominated news programming, and the media shifted from covering a storm to covering a region being compared to a war zone. The cable news channels were offering near wall-to-wall coverage of the story by that point, but none of the networks had offered prime-time coverage of what was rapidly becoming an extraordinarily significant story. The first Katrina specials wouldn't appear until the next night: A half-hour edition of 48 hours on CBS, an hour-long ABC special called "In the Path of Katrina," and an hour-long episode of "Dateline" on NBC.

"It wasn't until Wednesday that they changed their coverage to reflect the crisis," says Andrew Tyndall, publisher of The Tyndall Report, a newsletter that monitors television news. "They were set up to cover it as a traditional hurricane story, and it took 24 hours for them to realize that it was now an urban story."

That earned the networks some criticism. An e-mailer to the blog TV Newser wrote:

"The conduct of the broadcast networks during this historic catastrophe has been disgraceful and inexcusable. August 30, 2005 may have been the most terrible day for the U.S. since September 11th, 2001, and I can't experience any of it for more than 30 minutes of an evening?"

Another critic, at a blog called Metroblogging New Orleans, pointed out the programming on the networks at one point that Tuesday night consisted of "Big Brother 6," "Tommy Lee Goes To College," "House" and "According to Jim," and wrote:
"People need to be informed about this situation. This is quite possibly the worst disaster to ever occur in the history of this country, maybe not in terms of loss of life, but easily in terms of economic impact. ... It's bad, people. Get Tommy Lee off the f---ing television."

Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News, says that part of the reason there was no special on Tuesday was logistical. "All of the networks were operating under these extremely onerous, difficult conditions," he says. "Just doing the basics was extremely taxing. By Wednesday, not only had the story taken on a new dimension, but we felt capable of adding to what we were doing on the evening news in primetime." Heyward says that the logistical challenges were so significant that, for much of Wednesday, people in the news division in New York weren't even sure that the reporters expected to appear on the primetime special that evening even knew about it.

Katrina ultimately did get covered extensively by the networks. According to the Tyndall report, in the past 17 years there have been only five weeks in which subjects have received more intense coverage on the nightly newscasts than Katrina did the week of Aug. 29: four weeks during the first Gulf War and the week of the Sept. 11 attacks. And there have been a number of primetime specials on the networks since the scope of the tragedy became clear.

Part of the reason the networks didn't have expanded coverage of the story as quickly as some would have liked might well be traced to the decline of the primetime news magazine. It's easy to convert a program like "48 Hours" or "Dateline" into a hard-news show covering breaking news on short notice, after all, and the news division has already secured the space in the primetime schedule, so they don't have to worry about preempting entertainment programming. "Anytime the hour belongs to the news division anyway," says Marcy McGinnis, vice president of news coverage at CBS News, "it's much easier."

In general, the reviews of the television news coverage of Katrina have been positive, with media watchers commending reporters for their passion and the seriousness of their reporting. And the networks' performance, suggests Tyndall, looks particularly good when put into perspective. "The government missed the story by three or four days," he says, "and the media only missed it by one."