It would be ridiculous to suggest anything good came out of Hurricane Katrina. Its devastation went beyond the lives lost and ruined in New Orleans and Mississippi. It also showed the world the racial divisions that still plague this nation.
Poor, mainly black, people were (and still are) the ones most affected by the levees that didn't hold. We will never forget the anguish of the evacuees trapped at the Superdome, ignored at the Convention Center, abandoned on the interstate and waving for help from their rooftops. The reason we can't forget is that television was there to put a face on the horror and our government's ugly, inadequate response.
The recovery effort, especially for a nation as prosperous as this one, is a historic failure that deserves ongoing media attention.
This week, on Aug. 29, we mark the second anniversary of the disaster that killed at least 1,800 people in Mississippi and Louisiana, and changed the historic city of New Orleans forever.
From a media standpoint, valuable lessons were learned. Since Katrina, viewers everywhere are now more likely to pay attention to storm warnings. Stations that once used weather technology as a competitive gimmick and view their weathercasters as “personalities” more than professionals, now take that segment more seriously.
In New Orleans, Belo's WWL had the foresight to prepare for an emergency like the one that ripped though the city, and it was the only station to keep operating throughout the crisis. But its preparations probably prompted stations and newsrooms nationwide (including Broadcasting & Cable) to make the same kind of arrangements, in case the unthinkable happened.
Those New Orleans stations did extraordinary jobs reporting the disaster, and significantly, they have largely retooled and rebuilt their battered newsrooms even though the market has now shrunk in size. At a time when news organizations are cutting back, Belo, Hearst-Argyle, Tribune and Emmis made significant investments in their New Orleans facilities.
Another encouraging part of the story is that Katrina is still being aggressively reported by the nation's media. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which keeps tabs on how well the media cover important issues, says Katrina coverage has been “unusually sustained if not necessarily all that [systematic] in explaining what went wrong.”
We're not sure we'd even grant Rosenstiel's caveat, but we do agree that this story hasn't been forgotten and abandoned like the shotgun homes in the Ninth Ward.
The three network news divisions and cable's news networks have kept a close watch on the long and badly executed rebuilding of New Orleans and Mississippi, not just in the days after, or on anniversaries. It's unfashionable these days to laud the mainstream media, but on this story it's the one institution that actually did its duty.