Disaster coverage: the journalism of outrage

Claude AdamsHurricanes Katrina and Rita changed the rules of disaster coverage.
Journalistic objectivity and professional detachment have begun to give
way to righteous indignation and emotion-laden reporting,
Claude Adams writes. Shouldn’t we have been doing that all along?

To the many legacies of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, you can add one more: The Journalism of Outrage. The natural disaster that nearly obliterated New Orleans five years ago made it okay, no, even fitting, for reporters to let loose that righteous indignation that lurks in all of us when we are witnesses to needless death and devastation, and we know the worst effects could have been prevented.

It’s not only setting aside objectivity. It’s raising the temperature, pointing a finger, holding someone accountable. It’s more than speaking truth to power; it’s assertively demanding an explanation, and maybe even throwing a figurative shoe when an honest answer isn’t forthcoming. “Cool is one thing,” said psychiatrist Frank Ochberg of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, reflecting on the emotions that were generated by the coverage of the Gulf Coast hurricanes. “Cold is something else.”

Katrina killed cold. Those of us who covered Rwanda and Haiti and the Asian tsunami, and prided ourselves on our reserve and professional detachment as we tip-toed around the bodies, got a shock when we watched the coverage of New Orleans. The rules of the game were changing. Here, finally, was gritty, hardcore journalism with a voice, an attitude. It was the end of deference.

“Excuse me, Senator,” remarked Anderson Cooper of CNN, as the US Senate leadership was congratulating itself for having passed an emergency funding bill. “I’m sorry for interrupting, I haven’t heard that because for the last four days, I’ve been seeing dead bodies in the streets . . . Because literally, there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the streets for 48 hours. And there’s not enough facilities (sic) to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out there?”

The tone was unmistakable: If you don’t “get it,” we are here to remind you of it over and over again throughout the news cycle. It was the newsman’s equivalent of the call to arms, to shake the foundations of a lethargic Big Government until it responds.

For NBC’s Brian Williams, the slow government reaction became a focus of the story. Williams recalled watching the U.S. Third Infantry Division in Iraq land a pallet of ready-to-eat meals, portable toilets and bottled water into an emergency zone 10 minutes after an order was issued. “What about these people in front of the (New Orleans) Convention Center—they didn’t deserve that?” he asked.

A TV critic in Seattle, Kay McFadden, remarked that the outrage showed America’s “passion for passion.” The storytellers, many of whom were themselves the victims of Katrina, had the right, even the moral duty, to get mad.

But the Journalism of Outrage is more than hectoring and finger-pointing. In New Orleans, it was the distilled proxy voice of a dispossessed population–wounded, homeless and feeling abandoned. Or as the BBC’s Gavin Hewitt put it: “Outrage is at its most effective when it is based on compassion; the sense that one is speaking out on behalf of ordinary people.”

The emergence of angry, compassion-based journalism is touched on in only a handful of pages in Covering Disaster: Lessons from the Media Coverage of Katrina and Rita, a collection of essays edited by communication professors Ralph Izard and Jay Perkins, of Louisiana State University. But it’s the most evocative and important part because it makes such a strong case for aggressive advocacy in certain events.

“Citizens and reporters alike saw firsthand how inefficient and inept government really was,” they write. “It was a catastrophic failure from top to bottom, from the sheriff on the street to the bureaucrat in Washington . . . Many journalists clearly abandoned the concept of fair-and-balanced coverage and became advocacy reporters, telling the people in no uncertain terms what they were witnessing.”

And this kind of journalism struck a chord with the American public: Surveys showed that a solid majority of viewers didn’t mind having their emotions, and their critical faculties, stirred by a strong-jawed mad-as-hell media.

The aggressive journalism put politicians on the defensive, and they reacted the way politicians often do: by trying to pass the buck. One of the more startling allegations in the book is that the White House mounted a “concerted effort” to blame Louisiana state officials for the many blunders in the emergency response–an effort aimed not at saving lives, but rather “saving the political life of the president (George W. Bush).”

It’s a bit surprising, then, to see what happened in the post-mortem analysis of the Katrina coverage. So entrenched is the profession in its ethos of equanimity and “coolness” that when the crisis was over, some of the journalists who had made the most noise were the first to issue qualified apologies. Looking back on his displays of on-air emotion, Anderson Cooper told the authors that he doesn’t “take sides” and that viewers don’t need an overpaid anchorman to tell them what to think. It was a repudiation of an honest and, I believe, justifiable impulse. (To be sure, in his coverage of post-earthquake Haiti earlier this year, Cooper was quite unrestrained in taking sides and telling his audience what they should conclude about the slow delivery of food and medicine to the people of Port-au-Prince.)

Other commentators warned that journalists needed to be careful lest they get “burned” by this new readiness to display outrage.

“Outrage,” said the BBC’s Hewitt, “should be used sparingly and should never slide into anger.”

To which I have to ask: Why not? As journalists dispense with their dispassionate objectivity in the face of tragedy and genocide, why shouldn’t they inject a little righteous anger into their reporting? Isn’t that display of passion essential in creating a true sense of connection between a viewer and an eyewitness to an extraordinary event? Indeed, isn’t that emotion part of the context of the story? Isn’t that also part of the legacy of 9/11?

Psychologist Daniel Goleman reminds us that in any given situation “our first moral response comes as a feeling, not a thought.” That’s not a bad thing, for reporters with a sense of proportion and fully-developed Emotional Intelligence. For others, however, strong emotion can cloud judgment. In New Orleans, some media outlets were too quick to report rumors (later shown to be untrue) of large-scale violence, rape, even snipers shooting at would-be rescuers. One commentator called the coverage of Katrina “an unmitigated media disaster”–an overstatement that unfairly tarred a profession struggling to deal with the worst natural disaster in American history.

Mistakes and hyperbole will always happen in the heat of the moment. (Remember Three Mile Island?) But what Katrina demonstrated is that passion and taking sides has its proper place in disaster reporting, as long as journalists remember their first loyalty–the public. “2005 was the year the stakes went up in journalism,” wrote one newspaper columnist.

Things will never be quite the same.

Claude Adams is a freelance writer, producer, videographer, and documentary filmmaker. He has produced documentaries in Africa, Asia and the Far East, often doing his own camera work. In 1998, he produced a full-length documentary entitled Rwanda: Out of the Darkness, about the extraordinary pressures on the country’s justice system four years after the genocide. As a special roving correspondent for Global Television News, Adams reported from Colombia, Haiti, Bosnia, Egypt, Hong Kong, South Africa and Iraq. He was also chief European correspondent for CBC’s The National, and covered the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the end of Communism in Europe. In 2007, he was invited to teach broadcast journalism at Rwanda’s State University, as part of Carleton University’s Rwanda Initiative.