Katrina was different.
"When you see people suffering the way they were — especially when you're in America — it's hard not to put your heart on your sleeve," says CBS Chief White House Correspondent John Roberts, who anchored the CBS Evening News' Katrina coverage from New Orleans. "The complete failure of the federal response effort provoked outrage in people who are normally impartial observers. I don't think we should start pointing fingers, but I think we can reflect the sense of outrage on the ground and how that outrage affected us."
The government's response to the disaster was so frustrating, it seems, that for reporters on the ground, negative characterizations of it didn't feel to them like editorializing. Of course, the Katrina coverage was fairly dispassionate at the beginning, when it was still not yet known just how bad the situation was becoming — most reporters adopted a standard reportorial tone, even as they stood on flooded streets. Then, on Aug. 30, CNN's Jeanne Meserve gave a phone interview to Aaron Brown in which she very emotionally described scenes of dogs being electrocuted by downed power lines, a woman whose leg had been severed, bodies in the streets, and other horrors. She went on to give a series of such reports from the field where she was visibly moved. Asked Friday if she was happy with her coverage of Katrina, Meserve was silent for a few seconds. "That's an interesting question," she said. "The fact that it woke people up to what was happening — that makes me pleased."
After Meserve's report, the tenor of the coverage changed dramatically. Some broadcast reporters did more than display their own, personal feelings of sadness and horror; they openly expressed outrage. CNN's Anderson Cooper aggressively told Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu that people were frustrated that she and other politicians were thanking each other as the bodies piled up. Fox News' Shepherd Smith yelled at a police officer, "What are you going to do with all these people? When is help coming for these people? Is there going to be help? I mean, they're very thirsty. Do you have any idea yet? Nothing? Officer?" MSNBC's Joe Scarborough characterized the government response as a "national disgrace."
Had the situation been different, journalists might have been criticized for editorializing. But most media critics lauded the press corps' change in approach. Now, however, it's worth considering the impact of that change. Some reporters on the Gulf Coast expressed sadness, while others expressed anger, and its important to note those aren't the same thing; but they are both instances in which journalists allowed their personal responses to a situation to color their news coverage. The coverage of the storm has raised questions about the ultimate function of the press corps, as well as the nature of journalistic objectivity.
We'd like to highlight one example of CBS News taking a harder line than viewers have come to expect. During a special report on Katrina on Sept. 6, "48 Hours" correspondent Peter Van Sant posed this question: "In the end, what will have caused more deaths — Katrina itself or the government's incompetent, sluggish response?"
That comment and others like it left media watchers and news professionals debating the sometimes blurry line between advocacy journalism and straight reporting. "I think Peter (Van Sant)'s comment is right there on the line, but I think it's on the right side of the line," says CBS News President Andrew Heyward. Since President Bush, acknowledged that the relief effort had not gone well, Heyward says, there's no reason a reporter should shy away from doing so himself. "At a certain point a reporter's job is to call a spade a spade." Heyward says Van Sant would have crossed the line had he called for officials to be fired, but he sees no problem with having journalists react to stories as human beings. "Sometimes I think reporters confuse fairness with a kind of tit-for-tat blandness that runs the risk of insulting a viewer's intelligence."
That's the opinion of the majority of the media professionals contacted for this story, including Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of "48 Hours." "We lose sight of the fact that journalists are supposed to hold people accountable," she says. The emotions and anger that grew out of the realities on the ground, she adds, became an important part of the story. "Being a journalist doesn't cancel out the human gene in your brain."
But despite the praise reporters have received from many press critics for their Katrina coverage, the latitude journalists have to engage their "human gene" doesn't come easily. Reporters have much less freedom to complain about what they perceive as incompetence in the vast majority of stories they cover than they did during Katrina — such complaints, after all, invite charges of bias, or worse. Katrina was a special case, says Steve Lovelady, managing editor of Columbia Journalism Review's CJR Daily; because the TV viewer could see "the yawning gap between what he saw in front of his eyes and all the reassuring rhetoric coming from politicians." On most stories in which such a gap exists, he says, it is not nearly so obvious.
Matthew Felling, Media Director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, says part of the reason reporters succeeded in covering Katrina was that they "constantly succumb to chronic overreaction syndrome — the mother tongue is hyperbole, so when a true catastrophe comes they don't have to switch gears." He says their willingness to share opinions and pointed observations is tied to the movement towards more opinion-based journalism, which has made reporters more comfortable with infusing their coverage with commentary. "Once you get into those habits, you can't take the bullets out of the chamber."
Felling acknowledges, however, that much of the emotion in the reporting on Katrina grew out of honest emotion. Asked if he thought reporters were trying to out-outrage each other after early examples garnered a positive response, he said he didn't think so. "If you're in the middle of the storm, you're just trying to keep it together — not keep up with the Joneses." Meserve, perhaps, is living proof of that; when asked to discuss the appropriateness of the emotional coverage of Katrina, she deferred. "It's hard for me to intellectualize this," she said.