Editorial: Shining Hours Light the Way

9/06/2010 03:22:00 AM Eastern

The Katrina hurricane disaster that devastated New Orleans,
and made us all feel a little less sure of our country’s ability to
respond to a crisis, does not look any better with time and distance.
The images and realities remain vivid: The government’s
“too little, too late” response; the resulting brief, but no
less frightening, breakdown of civil order; and the recollection of bodies lying in a convention
center whose
hallways the broadcast
and cable industries know
extremely well.

Those memories have
been rekindled as the
media focused the past
couple of weeks on a five year-out retrospective. The
convention center version
of Dante’s Inferno is perhaps
the most enduring
image of the tragedy, and
remains among the most
painful for so many in the
television industry who
figuratively camped out
there during industry conventions.
It was a base of
operations from which to embrace a city that could
not have been a more welcoming host.

Those memories of New Orleans before Katrina
were mostly of the glitz and glamour of the exhibit
floor, panel sessions and industry award galas, or
hallway conversations about the latest show clearance,
or where to go after sampling the array of
show-related parties that spread themselves out
over the French Quarter.

But what that Katrina coverage, and the more recent
man-made disaster in the Gulf, have brought
into sharper focus is how skillfully the news media
can still be moved when calamity occurs. For all the
knocks on chasing the latest Paris Hilton arrest or Mel
Gibson moment—and many are deserved—time and
again, the news media has risen to the challenge and
provided journalism that touches hearts and minds
and, especially in the case of Katrina, refuses to let
the government stick to a “great job” story when all
the evidence points to the contrary.

The coverage of Katrina came before the economy
imploded and the news business was forced to start
reinventing itself. That makes the high marks earned
by the major media coverage of the BP Deepwater
Horizon oil rig explosion, and three-month oil spill,
in a recent Project for Excellence in Journalism content
analysis worth citing.

As PEJ pointed out, the story was a tough one,
with complicated and competing story lines out of
London, Washington and the Gulf. It was a story
that required a lot of new terminology, like trying
to explain the difference between a “junk shot” and
a “top kill.” One big difference between Katrina
and BP was that the latter story came from news
operations battered by their own perfect storm of
a tanked economy and an industry reeling from a
sea change in how its audience gets the news. And
network news divisions have been forced to reckon
with shifting corporate expectations from loss leaders
to contributors to the company’s bottom line.

That is what makes PEJ’s conclusions about the BP
coverage so impressive. It was a long-running saga
that did not break down along particular ideological
or political lines, that required explaining often
highly technical procedures, and to an audience
whose appetite for the story may have even exceeded
the large amounts of time and space devoted to
it, particularly by television, said PEJ.

Conceding that the industry was having to cope
with depleted staffs and revenues, PEJ concluded:
“News organizations displayed real staying power
as events continued to unfold. They spent considerable
time reporting from the Gulf and humanizing
the crisis. They largely avoided the temptation to
turn the disaster into a full-blown political fingerpointing
story. And in many cases they used their
Websites’ interactive features to illuminate aspects
of the story that would have been harder to digest
in print or broadcast formats.”

That sounds to us like a combination of the medium’s
historic strengths with new Web smarts. It
also sounds like a recipe for success.


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