Hurricane Isaac

*I apologize in advance to non-New Orleanians for any obscure references you can't possibly understand* 

This first paragraph isn't a new narrative: 

The state of the media, specifically the national news, is a hot topic in the United States right now - Comedy Central is airing the most accurate nightly news and Aaron Sorkin's call for Don Quixote has set the bar for the idealistic national media. This should scare you. If it doesn’t, you’re not paying attention.

 The movement and memes on social networking sites say it all, my generation is calling for a shift in this nations “reporting to get the ratings” culture. 

On April 14, 1912, the RMS Titanic sunk below the Atlantic Ocean, producing an unprecedented mass media frenzy.  The coverage, spanning coast to coast, served as the catalyst for an overwrought coverage of disasters, that today has reached a pinnacle.  The American public is presented with disasters on a daily basis, not only through television news coverage but through newspapers, magazines, movies, television shows, television specials, books, and commemorative commercials, both fictional and nonfictional.  The increase of social media and the ability for individuals to receive breaking news instantaneously has created a “disaster culture” in American society.  Twenty-four-hour news coverage has allowed for continuous commentary on disasters occurring around the world.

So, to over simplify the situation, is this good or bad? Well, it’s both - news media has a distinctive role to play during times of emergencies. They have the ability to disseminate life saving information to communities, regions and the world in a matter of seconds. But, inaccurate, alarmist, and over reporting can create serious and unnecessary hurdles for those in charge and impose devastating stereotypes on the groups affected. 

As I said, this idea is not new, but the reporting of Hurricane Isaac laid out this perfect little example and I just couldn't help myself. 

There is an important distinction to be made between the roles of the national and local media during situations such as Isaac. Each national news outlet has the goal of being the first on scene to maintain their ratings. It's not a collective effort to inform the public, it is an individualized brawl.

It doesn’t take a news analyst to see that the reporters are chasing the ratings. As Tropical Storm Isaac plowed over Haiti, a country where even the smallest amount of rain can cause devastating mud slides (Haiti is a whole other situation I won't go into here), where was Anderson? Not in Haiti. No, he was waiting in Tampa. Why? Because there was the possibility that the Republican National Convention might be delayed. Was CNN talking about how Tampa is vulnerable to the storm because of the potential damage to the lives of the locals? Nope, Anderson was there because the politicians at the RNC, white, old, rich men might have to reschedule their flights. (I also won't go into detail here about how irresponsible it is to encourage non-locals to travel to an area that is vulnerable to storms and is currently under a tropical storm warning) 

I'll casually graze over HLN's reporting. All you have to do is type "Nancy Grace Isaac" into twitter and you'll see the uproar. Yes, Nancy Grace was reporting that the images from the lakefront were from Jackson Square. Yes, the mayor addressed the issue of the national media not owning a map. Parishes surrounding Orleans know this feeling all to well but none perhaps as much as Mississippi, they even made a song. I’ll be honest, I have no clue what Fox reported - I refuse to turn it on anymore - but I’m sure we’ll all be updated when The Daily Show comes back on (P.S. Where is Jon this week? WE NEED HIM!!!) 

The point: The national media wants ratings. In a situation like scoring the first interview with Snooki since her “little man” was born, who cares? But, when you play this game with SERIOUS situations, like the lives and well being of millions of Americans... well... that’s messed up. 

When you see Cantore doubled over in the middle of the French Quarter compared to the the valiant local reporting of (to get away from hurricane talk) the local news during the Tuscaloosa Tornado in April 2011 you begin to see what I'm talking about here!

Sidenote: Reporters - standing in the middle of the French Quarter in 84 mph winds doesn’t make you a heroic weatherman, it makes you look like an idiot. Even Craig Fugate agrees. 

Fun Fact: When you type “role of national media vs local media” into google the eighth result is the “Media coverage during Hurricane Katrina”. New Orleanians are not new to this situation. Here’s the difference - the reporting during Katrina was NEEDED, so badly. You can criticize the way reporters jumped on victims for interviews but at the end of the day they were there getting the word out when all other systems were failing. We saw many cases of reporters breaking code and literally screaming at politicians. 

Why criticize the people who did some good during Katrina? Because they're not the same people anymore, intentions have changed. When Anderson let loose on Landrieu was he thinking about his ratings? No, (although I’m sure is producer didn’t mind the outburst) he was doing what needed to be done to get the real story, the real truth. Now, when we see Al Roker all morning getting blown around the French Quarter - he’s not standing out there to report the news (because New Orleans isn't where the news is happening in this storm, especially the quarter), he’s standing out there because the Today Shows ratings have been on the decline since the end of the summer olympics.

The local reporting during Isaac has been on a whole other playing field. WWL, which I’ve had streaming live the past three days has been on it. I even noticed a few instances when an anchor or guest would start spinning apocalyptic type lingo and the others on screen would immediately correct the situation (sorry, can't find a clip but it happened, I swear). This is partly inherent in the role the local media must play during an emergency. WWLTV is the face for the city. They have a responsibility to their constituents (the locals) to provide accurate and timely information. Judging by this mission - I deem their coverage a success.

Where I have seen the most drastic difference has been in the way the local coverage has played out over twitter. The local twitter handles have been AMAZING, seriously, out of this world. I'm 1500 miles away from New Orleans, and I can tell you where every single tree is down throughout the city. Twitter has taken information sharing to a whole new level (duh, we already knew that) but the local twitters Nola.com, Gambit, and even (dare I say) the Loyola Maroon have all been providing not just updates, but information that is saving lives. The WWL-TV app is doing the same thing we saw the local news doing in Tuscaloosa - publicizing critical information. [Extra big shout out to the NOLA Ready App - they're killin' it!]  

The point: Local media, working as a collective, serves to inform their constituency of necessary information. 

As I write this (the morning of Aug 29) I am sitting in the student union of North Dakota State University. Whenever the Today show switches to Al and Jim getting knocked down all heads turn and mouths drop open. I’m willing to go out on a limb that my friends in New Orleans, who still have power, and watch the video, just laugh. [Oh, what's that? You're a New Orleanian and you're laughing?] And there, right there, that’s the difference. The Today Show's audience isn’t New Orleanians - we’d turn it off. It’s for the people in North Dakota, California, and New York. The people who were promised a big hurricane to come down upon Tampa, disrupt the convention, and now, because of our history, have migrated west to see if we make it through. 

Okay, so the national media and the local media are supposed to play different roles during an emergency situation, and they're doing that so who cares? National reporting is SO important because it creates a national perspective. In this situation that perspective is on all things New Orleans. If the media isn't accurately depicting that perspective we've got a HUGE problem.

A three worded text from my father today illustrated to me the perception someone from away receives from only accessing national media: “flood gates closed”. His exact source of information I’m not sure of but, it’s safe to say CNN or MSNBC. From my perspective, it’s cute, he’s showing an interest in my interests but when you look past that... it’s really scary. He doesn’t know what “flood gates closed” means, or which flood gates, or why, or how... and when you’re dealing with such a complex infrastructure (see video for a quick, incomplete explanation) - "Flood gates closed" doesn’t quite cut it. When CNN announces that the flood gates are closed it seems to someone who's never lived near a flood gate in their life that all is well. The perspective is wrong. Get it?

But this situation is not unique to the city of New Orleans. Even local stations in other states understood what was happening in New Orleans before the national media could get it together.

[click here for an example of rational discussion and good reporting] 

There are hurricanes and then there are Katrinas. Suggesting that even a strong Category 1 could create a parallel to Katrina in the city of New Orleans is more than terrifying. For one, the intensity of the two storms is not comparable (see above video). Secondly, questioning Isaacs ability to cause the same damage Katrina did with the city un-evacuated, is nauseating. Thirdly, when a catastrophe like Katrina occurs we need the rest of the nation (whether something happens in New Orleans, or there is an earthquake in California, etc.) to not be desensitized. Let me throw some recovery theory at you: Comerio’s National Models of Recovery. Never heard of it? That’s okay, I’ll explain. The United States, according to Comerio (1998), follows the limited intervention model - recovery from disasters is insurance driven, supplemented by outside aid with limited government involvement. We are a country that fundamentally depends on the rest of the INDIVIDUAL CITIZENS and LOCAL government (not the federal government) to step up and help when one part of the country needs it. [Yes, the feds are supposed to jump in once those resources are exhausted]

In other words - Dear National Media: stop comparing Isaac to Katrina. Because when the city of New Orleans has another “Katrina” (which, yes, is a matter of when not if) we’re going to NEED you to help us spread the word and let the rest of the country know what's happening. Please, please, please do not desensitize the non-gulf coast states by showing the one image of a tree across St. Charles and the Clover Grill sign flapping in the breeze. For the love of God and all things holy explain to people that Plaquemines Parish flooding is terrible (Jindal's first estimates say 800 houses damaged) BUT they are outside the city levee system. Grand Isle, Lafitte, La Place that's not the City of New Orleans. Good lord look at a map! Don’t tweet - “levees over toping in New Orleans” when you’re referring to Plaquemines [you'll give someone a heart attack - I know I had one when I saw that!].  

On a completely serious note, what we're seeing in Plaquemines Parish right now is tragic and there is a place for the national media in reporting what is going on there. They are one of the first communities in this country where the impacts of environmental degradation and rising tides is rearing its head in a big way. This is a real problem, to say the least, and Plaquemines is not going to be the only place in this country to face this type of situation. Hopefully once CNN beats the dead horse of the area falling outside federal levees (just a prediction) we'll be able to move on to the bigger issue of what the heck we're going to do to fix what we've (as a country) have had a hand in creating.

Conclusion: I’m not saying the national media should GTFO of the city of New Orleans, I’m just saying that if you’re going to go to the city and run your mouths at least calmly and accurately address the situation.

Caveat: 

While I have had several native New Orleanians give me the go ahead on calling New Orleans home, I'm not native so this is just my opinion based on the four years I spent learning and loving this city. Although, I might add that those four years coincided with, what one could argue were the centerpiece of the city's attempted to reclaim, redefine, and re-advertise.