Sunday, September 11, 2005

Feedback on Reader Feedback

Over the weekend, a FWMN reader made this comment on one of my posts:
Nathan,

I'd be interested in FWMN's overall impression of the way local media has been covering the hurricane's impact on both a national and local level.
I think local coverage of Katrina has been very good. Both daily newspapers sent a writer and photographer to follow local residents dispatched to the Gulf Coast region to aid in the relief effort; the results are stories and photographs that help NE Indiana readers get a handle on what it's really like down there (not just what the Associated Press is reporting on) through the eyes of own own.

There's also been plenty of coverage of what's been happening locally, both with Hoosiers trying to help and displaced victims arriving and receiving that help, most notably in Marion.

And there's been a healthy discussion about who's to blame for what went wrong in New Orleans, though I think it's going to take a serious journalistic investigation into the events preceding as well as following the hurricane's arrival to figure out who is to blame. (Any one even remotely familiar with Louisiana politics knows just how corrupt some of the elected officials are; I would guess that those people are going to do their best to direct the spotlight elsewhere. That's not to say that the federal government doesn't shoulder blame as well, of course.)

Getting to the bottom of that story will be the true test of the Katrina coverage, but that's a task most likely reserved for a journalist not working in Fort Wayne.

As far as television coverage, both local stations have done a good job trying to cover this national story as good as their resources will allow. Obviously they're not going to be able to send a news crew down south, but I'm not sure another camera on the scene would be all that helpful right now. There is already plenty of hard-to-watch video to view if that's what you're interested in, partly because, like 9/11, this was a disaster tailor-made for television. I just hope that all the news helicopters hovering over New Orleans were also rescuing people from the roofs of buildings, not just taping others do that. (Unlikely, I know.)

The real story here isn't the high level of Katrina coverage -- that's a given. Local editors and news directors love these kinds of "big stories," because everyone knows it's a big story and they can go about devoting all their resources to covering "all the angles."

The problem is that this is just reactionary reporting. You could argue that the first journalists on the scene in New Orleans helped to save lives by pointing out the direness of the situation, but no one in local media fits that description. Instead, this kind of reporting functions more to satisfy the public's curiosity than anything else.

There's nothing wrong with that, of course. But what makes me stand up and cheer isn't an editor dispatching a reporter to Mississippi in the wake of a huge disaster that's captivated the nation; it's that same editor dispatching a reporter halfway across the country to work on a story that no one's talking about, that no one knows about, but one that will, when reported, have a positive impact on the community. Dan Stockman's Olin B. and Desta Schwab Foundation piece comes to mind as an example of that kind of story. It's still continuing to have an impact, two weeks after he first reported it.

Deciding to devote resources to cover Hurricane Katrina is easy; deciding to do the same to UNcover something -- that takes guts.

And that's when journalism is at its best.



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