NPR logo Journalism: An 'Inadequate Response' to Disaster?

Journalism: An 'Inadequate Response' to Disaster?

Some listeners ask whether NPR journalists would serve the public better if they let go of their news obligations (at least for a while) and just helped out in the post-Katrina rescue operations.

James Lange of Pompano Beach, Fla. writes:

I listened with growing horror as NPR attacked the officials trying to aid New Orleans victims, taking an outraged moral high ground.

We all can see that communications is the main problem: Why did NPR not use its satellite phones and other such gear to help the police communicate?

Why did NPR not send in food and water to the convention center?

Please, please don't tell me that you refused to help because "it's not our job."

Mort Cohen of Milwaukee called to ask if NPR journalists ever felt frustrated because of the demand of their profession. "What about the demands of suffering humanity? Do you ever feel that journalism is an inadequate response to the tragedies you report on?" asks Mr. Cohen.

I think this is an issue worth exploring. Some in the news business might undoubtedly express astonishment that listeners could be naïve about how journalism sees its obligations.

But listeners aren't naïve at all.

An Overwhelming Story

Many listeners have found the hurricane and its aftermath to be overwhelming. They have been moved by the tragedy, and they wonder if journalists feel as they do.

Some high-profile television journalists have made their personal emotions and involvement part of the story.

The BBC's Gavin Hewitt reported (but with typical British understatement) on how he and his crew gave stranded hurricane victims a ride to safety in their rented boat.

Other U.S. television reporters were open in expressing their feelings on camera. Some media critics have berated them for "grandstanding," saying the reporting was overly involved, unnecessarily emotional and implicitly biased against the Bush administration.

'Don't Stop Being Human'

Ellen Weiss is the senior national editor for NPR News. She oversees the complex editorial and logistical requirements for reporters and producers sent to the stricken areas.

I think for the most part NPR reporters understand that they are in the field to tell the story — not get involved. They are also often in the same position as the people they are covering — in danger, or without shelter, food or water. At the same time, you just don't stop being… human. I remember [NPR's] Mike Shuster on his "silk road" series — talking about picking up an injured Afghan boy and giving him a ride to the hospital or to safety miles away — I know our reporters in New Orleans gave people rides elsewhere — gave whatever water they could spare to people they met — but they understand that they can't jeopardize their own health and safety. An interesting example is what happened to Sarah Chayes — she was a freelancer for us in Europe and then Afghanistan — and she did become so involved there that she simply left journalism and went into aid work.

There has been a higher than usual level of emotion in much of the reporting on NPR and elsewhere. The hurricane seems to have allowed a greater sense of outrage to emerge among the public, and many reports reflect that.

The hurricane may also have allowed the public a greater sense of grievance against the administration by the public. Journalists reflect that too.

'Piling On'

Some listeners think that NPR is also succumbing to the temptation to bash the administration. "Piling on," is how one listener described it. Some listeners say that while the failures of FEMA and the other federal agencies should be noted, failures at the state and local levels should be mentioned as well.

There is one area that has not gotten much attention on NPR: Are government agencies less effective as a result of the high number of political appointees who now head them? A timely and closer look at the state of government efficiency is needed.

Listener Hank Bradley found an instance of "piling on" in NPR's reporting on the president's Sept. 15 speech from New Orleans. Mr. Bradley noted that while ABC found only people who supported the president's speech, NPR could not find even one on Morning Edition the next day:

I remain convinced that NPR's presentation of news items verges on opinion journalism — and it doesn't include opinions much removed from the ivory tower end of the spectrum. I'd appreciate some diversity among your producers and writers.

Robin Gradison, Morning Edition's senior producer responds to Mr. Bradley:

I think the proper comparison between ABC News and NPR on the Bush speech would have been to listen to NPR during the speech live last night [and] compare that coverage to the live network coverage last night. Second-cycle [morning-after] news is always different than breaking news, whatever the event and whatever the medium. Still, I would say (having flipped between [Ted] Koppel on ABC and [PBS] after the speech) that both had their critiques. In fact Koppel's comments just before the speech focused on the White House having brought all of the generators and lights in to light the cathedral, hardly a comment supportive of the White House. And after the speech he noted with some skepticism (or fear) that the military would now be the first responders in case of national emergency.

So, I do not believe that the writer has done an accurate comparison of the [television] networks and NPR (e.g. let's compare apples and apples)...

NPR interviewed two elected politicians after the president's speech. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), expressed his approval of the speech; NPR's Don Gonyea described Durbin's response as "cautiously gracious." And Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), and a budgetary hawk, said he thought the president's speech was less than effective because it would be a "budget buster."

The next day, all of the people interviewed by NPR for Morning Edition were evacuees — not politicians — and they were uniformly unimpressed by President Bush's speech.

This confirms my experience as a (lapsed) television producer: People tend to be more initially supportive of a speech right after hearing it. After thinking it over, they become more critical.

But surely Morning Edition's report the next day might have found someone who thought that the president's speech was worthwhile.

Note to Ombudsman: 'Skip the Bouquets to NPR'

Listener John Duffy took me to task for last week's column in which I agreed with listeners who thought NPR's coverage of the hurricane was "among the best ever heard on NPR." Mr. Duffy thought that tone was too self-congratulatory:

While you lauded NPR's coverage, celebrating it as some of the stations' "best reporting ever" and quoting admiring letters from readers, The New York Times ombudsman skipped the bouquets to ask how seriously the paper had reported on issues of race and class in New Orleans before the hurricane struck. Reviewing the Times coverage of New Orleans from 1995, the ombudsman concluded that there had been little coverage of race and class and that the paper, had in effect, let readers down by failing to report on the problems in New Orleans that preceded the hurricane.

While the public editors conclusions may be debated, there is little doubt that he is engaging in the tough-minded criticism that readers should expect from an ombudsman.

Perhaps NPR has covered issues of race and class in New Orleans prior to Katrina, rendering criticism on this score irrelevant. If so, I believe you would have done your readers a service had you pointed this out, linking to the relevant reports. And if NPR has not performed such reporting, you might have pointed this out and explained why it was or wasn't significant.

Mr. Duffy is right. Although NPR has done good work in reporting issues of race and class conflict in America, it must do more.

In looking through NPR's archives on the NPR Web site, and using the keyword "race," the range and number of stories about this fault line in American life is impressive. There have been hundred of stories about this issue in the South and throughout the country over the years.

But is it enough? Probably not. If the measure of journalism is its ability to warn the listeners, then NPR, too, has failed to make a dent in the national armor.