Professionals weigh in on current state of the media

Well over a month after making landfall in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina and the human tragedy it caused still are still eliciting awe. This was the general reaction from all present at last week’s panel discussion “Reporting the ‘Other’: Media in the Eye of Katrina,” part of Community Learning Day.

The panel consisted of coordinator Susan Ryan, chair of the communication studies department, Donna Shaw, assistant professor of journalism, Kim Pearson, associate professor of journalism and interactive media, Paul D’Angelo, associate professor of communication studies, and Natalie Pompilio, a reporter who covered the hurricane for the Philadelphia Inquirer and worked for the New Orleans Times-Picayune from 1997 to 2002.

They summarized for the audience the media response to Hurricane Katrina, with D’Angelo covering television, Shaw and Pompilio covering print and Pearson covering online journalism.

Pompilio was an eyewitness to the devastation of the hurricane, and felt particularly close to the story, having lived and worked in New Orleans for six years. Her account included stories of journalists having no access to outside news because of a lack of working phone lines, the alleged looting that took place and victims of the hurricane begging for food and water.

Shaw, who worked at the Philadelphia Inquirer for 14 years, used a PowerPoint presentation to underline the media’s accomplishment in prompting the government to give aid to New Orleans and thus save many lives. “The media did a really good job,” she said.

She also highlighted the problems with the media coverage, especially the exaggerated stories of the death toll, violence in the streets and looting.

After the panel, Julia Carey, freshman journalism/professional writing major, agreed. “I thought it was almost exploiting those people,” she said, referring to the coverage that she considered “too dramatic.”

Pearson covered the response seen in blogs, explaining that while bloggers cannot cover huge stories like Hurricane Katrina, they are useful in providing coverage of the media itself, and news she described as being “under the radar.” She showed the audience several blogs, including her own.

During a question-and-answer period that followed the panel discussion, John Pollock, professor of communication studies, described blogs as part of the “echo chamber effect” that media creates.

Audience members also discussed controversies in the coverage with the panelists, especially concerning the racial implications of the response to Hurricane Katrina.

The panelists noted how The New York Times left both black colleges in New Orleans off its flood map and labeled its caption below a photograph of two light-skinned people as depicting them “finding” food, while the caption below a photograph of a dark-skinned man doing the same was labeled as “looting.”

This angered Lawrence Caulker, freshman open options major in the School of Science, who said he “thought it was bullshit how most of the ‘looters’ were black people.”

D’Angelo discussed the TV coverage of Hurricane Katrina. “The story changed from weather to politics,” he said.

He described how the media became closer to the subjects they covered, with reporters allowing people to ask for help, even displaying “empathy and rage” in what was meant to be objective coverage. He showed clips from CNN that displayed this closer coverage.

Ryan assembled the panel for Community Learning Day, asking each professor to cover the field of his or her expertise. She also asked Shaw to help find a reporter who had covered Hurricane Katrina. Shaw said she immediately thought of and asked Pompilio to be a part of the panel.

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Myles Ma