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Media Struggles To Cover Katrina

This story was written by's Brian Montopoli

Last night, fearing for their safety, CBS News moved much of its team in New Orleans from their hotel to an overpass on Interstate 10. That's where national correspondent Tracy Smith was standing, preparing for a live segment, when a female police officer approached and handed Smith a pocketknife.

"She told Tracy that if she was going to leave that spot, she was going to need it," says CBS National Editor Bill Felling, who was watching via an off-air feed from his New York office. Smith looked at the knife momentarily before putting it out of sight to begin her report.

The challenges facing reporters in the field, who strive to stay out of the stories they cover, are easy to forget when we consider the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. But in a region that is being described as a "war zone," the immense challenges of covering the story have become a story all of its own.

It begins with technical and logistical issues, which have been compounded by the large size of the affected area. Cellular phones in the region don't work, which makes it nearly impossible for reporters to communicate with producers, editors and other colleagues.

Reporters have come to rely on BlackBerry communication devices, which work sporadically, as well as satellite phones, which are few and far between. "There's worse communication for this than there was during 9/11," says Felling.

And those problems pale in comparison to those that reporting teams now share with the people they have come to cover. On CNN this morning, Jeanne Meserve told viewers about the state of her hotel, which is surrounded on all sides by water, trapping those inside.

"The sanitary conditions here are becoming problematic," she said. "Toilets don't work. You have entire families crammed into a room. This is going to be a very nasty place to be in short order."

Dan LeDuc, a deputy national editor for The Washington Post, is overseeing that paper's hurricane coverage. "For our people who are on the ground, the conditions are pretty bad — one of our reporters spent the last two nights in his car," he said. "Of course, in comparison to what the people who have lived in the Gulf Coast have experienced, it's nothing."

It's been difficult for reporters to get near into the city of New Orleans, he added, because so many roads are impassable.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune is one of many newspapers whose staff has relocated away from the destruction. The paper moved its staff mostly to Houma, about 60 miles from the city, in order to maintain operations.

The decision to move came after reporters had spent two nights in a newsroom with no air conditioning and a dying generator. The Internet has been the only available option for many media outlets in the region, and the Times-Picayune posted all of its coverage online when printing a paper edition became impossible.

"Things are so bad in the city that there are no ways to get copies of the paper to anyone anyway," Mark Schleifstein, an environmental reporter and hurricane expert who has become the Times-Picayune's spokesman, told the Los Angeles Times.

Baton Rouge's Advocate is also hosting Times-Picayune staffers, as well as reporters who have come to cover the story from as far away as Paris. Some, according to Editor and Publisher, arrived at the newspaper with children in tow.

The Sun Herald, in Biloxi, Miss., has kept publishing out of the offices of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer, though some employees remain in the newspaper's powerless main building. It even managed to have 20,000 free copies of its hurricane coverage delivered into Biloxi, despite the fact that most roads have flooded.

New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV, which has stayed on the air since the hurricane hit, has sent much of its staff to Louisiana State University, in Baton Rouge, where communications systems are barely functioning. Other local stations have provided coverage over the Internet, despite going off the air.

Despite the conditions, Felling says it would be impossible to get reporters to leave the region. "I couldn't pull these people out of there with a tank," he said. "Nobody wants out. Nobody wants relief. They know they're sitting on a moment of history."

Adds LeDuc: "I couldn't be prouder of work of our staff people. They're just performing brilliantly under terrible conditions, and without complaint."

By Brian Montopoli

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