Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Reporting becomes "out of control" rumor mill

Jonah Goldberg (NRO) takes a candid look at the news breakdown in the aftermath of Katrina, even acknowledging that we all seemed to take the worst hook line and sinker.

All of the major newspapers contributed to the hysterical environment, passing on one unconfirmed rumor after another. And, to be fair, almost everyone else in one way or another contributed to the climate as well. The blogosphere bought the hyperventilation hook, line, and sinker. The low point was almost certainly when Randall Robinson ominously disclosed on the Huffington Post that African-Americans in New Orleans had resorted to eating the flesh of corpses to stay alive. This was just days into the flood (it took the stranded Donner party weeks to resort to eating the dead). Yet this supposedly fact-checked blog found it credible that African Americans would eat the bloated carcasses floating in New Orleans' floodwaters almost the second they ran out of groceries.

What accounts for this journalistic fiasco?

His analysis is good, but I’d like to add a couple of points. Clearly the problem in the Katrina coverage was rampant rumor. If you’ve ever dealt with a media crisis management situation, you would know that rumor control is a critical part of the effort. Rumors can over-run all factual and rational efforts you make, because you cannot control the wild fire that blows through the human population on a one-on-one basis.
Rumor control involves delivering complete information with clear communication frequently. The biggest, and most complicated job, in this kind of effort is getting accurate information out there to fill the information void when the usual communication channels have failed.
The difference between Rita and Katrina was communication. While Louisiana officials complained about people holding press conferences – even declaring a press conference moratorium for a while. In Texas, the communications were frequent and ubiquitous. You almost got tired of the repetitive updates.

In disaster relief, the chief executive (Mayor or Governor or both) has to put a face on the communication even if it is repetitive. Rather than hunkering down in a bunker, that part of the disaster team needs to be on the air by any means possible.

But, if the local officials in New Orleans weren’t doing their job communicating, where was the press in all of that. It is great to have people on the ground in the French Quarter for flavor, but shouldn’t CNN and Fox producers have been in or at the Emergency Operations center? And if they were barred from those locations, why weren’t they screaming bloody murder about it?

Great pictures of suffering won out over clarity in communication.

Public officials many times prefer to speak only when they know all the facts, for fear of getting some part of the story wrong. But, as in Texas, a steady stream of communication saves lives, and provides all the opportunity you need to make corrections to the record.

Rumors lead people to make dangerous decisions. Facts save lives. Rumor control takes affirmative steps.