With hundreds of news stories and countless hours of television coverage of Hurricane Katrina, there's one story that barely got out: That most of the violence reported never happened.
The Juneau Empire was among the many news outlets that ran disturbing accounts of refugees raping and beating each other, shooting at rescue helicopters and fighting at the Superdome.
While looting around New Orleans was real, most of the reports of violence at emergency shelters turned out to be unfounded, according to recent accounts by the Newhouse News Service and The Associated Press. While stories of storm victims putting up with filth, overcrowding and dehydration at refugee centers were true, most of the reports of rapes, murders and riots were not.
Officials went into the Superdome expecting to find a couple of hundred bodies, as had been reported. Instead they found six. Four died of natural causes, one of suicide and another of an overdose.
A few articles countering the previous claims of violence have run in newspapers and on TV. But these single stories have not erased the mistaken perception of how Katrina refugees behaved after the storm.
When I asked friends who are avid followers of the news if they had heard of these retractions, they all said no. They were surprised to hear the reports of violence were mostly rumor. Even Empire editors, who read the news wire services every day, never saw mention of any stories redrawing the post-hurricane scene.
Journalists must bear some responsibility for passing along these myths about Katrina's victims. Reporters should have double-checked their stories more thoroughly and editors should have been far more skeptical about these outrageous accounts.
But as much as people like to blame the media, they should refrain from writing this off as one more reason not to trust journalists. First, the rumors of warlike conditions in Katrina's aftermath were widespread. Reporters were hearing similar stories from multiple people, including refugees at the Superdome, police, National Guardsmen and Coast Guard officers. Had these stories come from just a couple of sources and run unchecked, reporters would have been grossly irresponsible. But instead, numerous people confirmed the shocking reports of raped children and corpses.
Second, those who were spreading these tall tales included the New Orleans police chief and the city's mayor, people with the greatest access to information about the disaster scene. One would think that when Police Chief Eddie Compass went on national television to report rapes of babies, he would have checked his facts first.
Similarly, Mayor Ray Nagin told TV viewers gang members were killing and raping inside the dome and that refugees were stepping over too many bodies to count. While the nation is lambasting the Federal Emergency Management Agency for its snail-like response to this national disaster, Nagin should be called on the carpet for disseminating stories that had no basis in fact.
It's impossible to guess the motivations behind these overblown stories. Some have speculated that they were used to spur relief efforts that were far too slow in coming. The stress and fatigue that came from covering the hurricane may have dulled reporters' skepticism. The event also likely generated a subtle form of hysteria among people in New Orleans.
But it's also hard not to believe that racism and prejudice against the poor didn't come into play here, even though some of those spreading the rumors were black. It's hard to imagine that if most of the refugees inside the Superdome were white, middle- and upper-class suburbanites, these rumors of a descent into savagery would have prevailed.
What is impressive is that despite these ugly portraits, Hurricane Katrina has spurred Americans to pour out their support for storm victims and offer millions of dollars in private donations. The good news is that refugees - despite being in a state of shock and squalor - were far more civilized than portrayed. But even when they were not depicted that way, Americans have shown no shortage of compassion.
Lori Thomson is managing editor of the Juneau Empire.
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