'Covering Katrina' Probes Reporters' Ethical Dilemmas Reporters covering Hurricane Katrina often walked a fine line between covering the news and becoming a part of it. An exhibit at Washington, D.C.'s Newseum examines how journalists covered the tragedy on the Gulf Coast.
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'Covering Katrina' Probes Reporters' Ethical Dilemmas

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'Covering Katrina' Probes Reporters' Ethical Dilemmas

'Covering Katrina' Probes Reporters' Ethical Dilemmas

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Most of us experienced Hurricane Katrina through the news media: images of people frantically waving down helicopters, the sound of wind and rain and water, the descriptions of the devastation.

An exhibit called "Covering Katrina" opens at the Newseum here in Washington, D.C. tomorrow. Cathy Trost, the Newseum's director of exhibits, joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you with us today.

Ms. CATHY TROST (Director of Exhibit Development, Newseum): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And part of the exhibit is a wall of front pages from newspapers not just in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, but from around the world. And collectively, that's an extraordinary presentation of headlines and photographs that conveys a sense of the scale of this disaster that I don't I saw before or could sense before.

Ms. TROST: Well, that was part of our objective. You know, this is really a behind-the-scenes look at how the story of Katrina and its aftermath was covered through the eyes of the journalists who were there. And it's still, you know, such a raw memory for Americans. It's still such a major news story that we looked back, and we tried to tell the story through the objects, the unforgettable front pages, through those jaw-dropping photographs that you see throughout the exhibit that really make you just sort of stop in your tracks and remember what you experienced back then through the news coverage, and through the objects that the journalists loaned us who covered the storm, the tools of the trade they used to cover Katrina, and also, in some cases, their own recovered memories and pieces of their own lives because - particularly the local reporters, in some cases, shared the same losses and same experiences as those they covered.

CONAN: Sure. Some of those artifacts include the doors with the, I guess, indelible images of those - of the searchers who had been through the houses to say what the date was if they found any dead bodies.

Ms. TROST: Yeah, those signs of the storms were so moving. The communications was so primitive, really. What you remember from the news coverage is seeing people on their rooftops scrawling in chalk, help us, please. The water is rising. You see those doors that carried messages like, one dead in the attic, which The Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose so memorably put in a book and made us all really understand, as he said in his column: Who grieved for one dead in the attic? Who buried one dead in the attic? These were more than just numbers.

And the anti-looting signs, too, because there was fierce anger over what was happening to the city, particularly in New Orleans, but also on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. And there's some very powerful signs on loan to us from the Louisiana State Museum in which a rug store owner very forcibly communicates to folks, I have a big dog, an ugly woman and a claw hammer. And don't you dare come inside.

CONAN: You also addressed some of the controversies, stuff the news media got wrong: the stories of anarchy inside the Superdome, for example, rape and murder, that sort of thing, that were never substantiated, and controversies that I think continue to this day, describing the people leaving the city as refugees or victims.

Ms. TROST: Yeah. We take an honest look at the media. And, I'll - well, I will say upfront that I think, as a former reporter myself, as someone who came up from the news business, the challenges were daunting. We take a particular slice of this story and look at what happened down with The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and The Sun Herald on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to really point out the challenges that the local papers had in covering a storm, where there was no cell phone service, there was - information was hard to come by. Even those people who ran the city were spreading rumors. And yet most of it, they got right. There was some flawed reporting nationally, as well as locally. There were reports of bodies piled up in the convention center in a freezer, mayhem and violence that didn't turn out to be true.

But The Times-Picayune, in particular, 20 days after the first stories, wrote a very powerful story, rolling back those rumors that's unsubstantiated, and others followed suit.

CONAN: And the story - you tell the story of two different pictures. One saying, people who had just found some groceries, light-skinned people in a store, a grocery store, and others saying a looter, and this is a dark-skinned man.

Ms. TROST: Sure. The story of race and class was important to discuss in this exhibit. And in the exhibit, we showed two pictures, as you described. And one is described - the light-skinned couple are described just finding items from a grocery store. The black-skinned man is described as looting. We also talk about the use of the word refugees, which was a hot button. Civil rights activists said it was demeaning. These were citizens of the United States. Many news organizations banned the use of that word, but some did not.

CONAN: You mentioned that there are artifacts provided by some of the reporters and photographers who participated in the coverage. Joining us now is Ted Jackson, a photographer for The Times-Picayune. Several of his photographs and several of his stories are part of this exhibit. And he joins us on the line from New Orleans. Ted, nice to have you with us today.

Mr. TED JACKSON (Photographer, The Times-Picayune): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And one of those artifacts is a pair of your glasses.

Mr. JACKSON: Yes. That was - I almost didn't send that. They sat in my drawer for a long time as a memory. I remember that two days into the storm coverage I broke my glasses. The lenses fell out and that was pretty tough for me as a photographer. And I was able to get just a little bit of superglue and glue them back together. But they looked pretty ragged now, looking back on them. But they allowed me to keep working.

CONAN: Of all the things you would ever have in your life that end up in a museum, it's your glasses.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACKSON: That's right.

CONAN: There are some extraordinary photographs, one of them is a family caught in rushing water, and the - a young girl seeming to try to reach out across the water to get away.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. That was the first thing that I actually saw when I crossed the St. Claude Bridge and to investigate the rumor that we were hearing that the Lower Ninth Ward was underwater - didn't expect to see that. But the first family I saw in crossing that bridge was calling to me for help. And that was a very traumatic thing, to realize that not only were you the first responder to show up on the scene, but you're very likely - for a long time, you would be the only responder. I thought was there just to shoot pictures and to report back what I had seen.

CONAN: Well, they were asking you for help.

Mr. JACKSON: They were. And in the photograph, the women - there's three women and four children. And they're trying to balance on the rail of their porch. The water was up to their chest, but they're actually standing on the rail. And you can see the door behind them, just a few inches from the top of the door, so it was very deep. And they were trying to balance one of the children on a log they had caught in the raging current. And the current - I cannot describe how fast that water was moving between me and them. And their plan was to push the child balanced on the log across the street and the current and for me to catch them.

And we were yelling above the wind because the hurricane was still blowing at this time. And I was begging them not to do this because I could see this in my mind, that the child would be washed off the log and she would drown and the rest of them would jump in trying to save her, and it would all be lost. And I felt like the longer I stayed there, the more likely they would be to try this plan. And so I just realized I had to shoot a picture for the world to see. And I made this picture and then left.

CONAN: And I understand that some months later, you contacted this family again.

Mr. JACKSON: Right. It was Thanksgiving and we were doing a Thanksgiving story about the people who were rescued and giving them an opportunity to thank their rescuers. And this was the image that I wanted to find out about. I wanted to know if these people survived, because I lived for a long time until Thanksgiving not - just assuming that they had all left because I came back later that day and they were all gone from the porch. But we did contact them. They were in Houston. They all survived.

And the one thing I - the two questions I remember that she asked me on the phone, she said, we just couldn't understand why you left us. And I explained that I came back an hour later with a boat and a rope. And then, her second question was, can we get a copy of the photograph for our family records? And I think that was - at least helped me to realize - or helped them to realized -both of us, really, that these pictures were very, very important to shoot, but very, very difficult to shoot at the same time.

CONAN: And difficult to shoot. And a lot of people outside the news business wonder how sometimes photographers and reporters can attend to their work and not attend to those in difficulties. This was a decision you had to make, I'm suspecting, dozens of times.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. And in today's world, I mean, immediately, this was the first opportunity that I had to see this moment. And from then on, I made up some rules for myself, that if I could help, that would be my first priority regardless of the photos, and if I could shoot a picture and help also that was my ideal. And if people where in the water, then I would rescue them. If they were high and dry on a rooftop and whatever, then I would proceed on and look for a - for pictures, you know, in other places.

CONAN: There's an extraordinary picture of medics with a woman on a gurney.

Mr. JACKSON: Yeah. That was a hard moment for me because they were bringing the woman out from the helicopter. And it was - I was standing on the interstate with a couple of other photographers. And as they lifted the woman over the barricade in the middle of the interstate and laid her foot on the gurney, the gurney rolled away. And one of the paramedics - and, you know, we were all shooting this picture. It was a dramatic moment. And one of the paramedics just screamed at us: Would somebody, for God's sakes, help us? And I was very disgusted at that moment that we were thinking too much about photographs, and so I just slung my cameras over my shoulder and just helped her and got back on board.

And then I remember thinking that I didn't want to shoot pictures for awhile. But then, almost immediately, another helicopter landed and a paramedic was springing out two children on his arms, and I started shooting pictures again. It was just that kind of torrent of photographs coming at me. And I remember thinking that - just keep shooting, that's what you do and that's the way you help, and you kind of shoot pictures in self-defense.

CONAN: I am sure that those days are - you remember as awful, I'm also sure that those must be among the most vivid days of your life.

Mr. JACKSON: I guess. Someone asked me last week if this was the story of my career, and I said, my God, I hope so. And I just, you know, you want to be in the moment when news is happening, but, you know, we'd - we would give all the awards and all the attention and all the photographs back if we could not have this in our lives. This has just been a horror for everyone that lives here.

CONAN: Ted Jackson, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. JACKSON: Thank you.

CONAN: Ted Jackson, a photographer for The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. His pictures and stories are part of an exhibit called "Covering Katrina" that opens tomorrow at the Newseum here in Washington, D.C. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And still with us here in the studio is Cathy Trost, the director of exhibits at the Newseum. And while those are just some of the stories, you can imagine the power of some of these pictures and the text. And the artifacts - there's another one. There's a porcelain doll sitting in a chair. Could you describe that for us?

Ms. TROST: Yes, her name is Hannah Rose(ph). She was made by a New Orleans doll maker, an elderly woman who made dolls for a living, quite beautiful. And this was a doll who was getting ready for her first day of school. She was dressed in a schoolgirl's outfit with a lunchbox.

She was found washed up in the storm. She's got Katrina gunk all over her in the exhibit. It's really kind of a moving spectacle of a child's toy, very symbolic. And the doll maker never made another doll after the storm.

CONAN: The lunchbox did not survive.

Ms. TROST: Yes.

CONAN: Yeah. How did you - there were literally so - millions of images, millions of stories, how did you go through all of this and make what must have been a wrenching decision: which to include, which to omit?

Ms. TROST: Well, we had a whole team of people at the Newseum who were dedicated professionals who look hard at these. And with everyone working together, we were - we had one focus, which was partly to tell this certain slice of a story, which was these local papers and how they communicated information to their isolated communities.

You know, what Ted doesn't mention was that when he was getting in this boat with a broom for a paddle and paddling around New Orleans, most of his staff had been forced to evacuate their downtown building because the floodwaters rose so dangerously high that they had to pile into newspaper delivery trucks and head for high ground.

And so we used as much as we could, the photography from The Times-Picayune and from The Sun Herald on the Gulf Coast, and it was a natural fit. Those moments were their stories.

CONAN: And of course, their houses, many of them, were also underwater. Their families were at risk.

Ms. TROST: Yeah, the two big stories - we went down to the Gulf Coast last fall and we started talking to these folks. And the two big stories that emerged were - shared connections to their readers and shared losses. And the shared losses part was really that these reporters were - they were evacuating their own families as they were staying on the job, running toward dangers - the saying goes. They were reporting the story while worried about their own families.

More than half the staffs we've heard of at The Times-Picayune and The Sun Herald either lost their homes entirely or they were badly damaged. Incidents of depression, divorce and other problems spiked in the whole community after Katrina. Reporters were not immune. Columnist Chris Rose wrote movingly about his own depression. And that, you know, really inspired hundreds of people to go to their doctor.

It was really a shared - this connectivity between the newspapers, the local newspapers and their communities was very powerful.

CONAN: And it should be pointed out that, obviously the printing presses didn't function for quite awhile afterwards, but both newspapers never failed to put out an edition.

Ms. TROST: They did not. The Times-Picayune stayed up by generator overnight when the storm hit, was able to publish on the Internet. The Internet, you know, five years ago, the Internet was a bit different than now, and they still were able to use the Internet very effectively to get out information. The Times-Picayune published online for a couple of days and then was back in print. The Sun Herald published offsite in Georgia, with the help of their parent company Knight Ridder and trucked paperback everyday to the Gulf Coast.

CONAN: Cathy Trost, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it. And good luck with the exhibit.

Ms. TROST: Thank you.

CONAN: "Covering Katrina" will be on display at the Newseum, D.C., in Washington, D.C., starting tomorrow through September of next year. And Cathy Trost is the director of exhibits there at the Newseum.

Tomorrow, Ira Flatow on the next SCIENCE FRIDAY, TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, as the talk turns to the world's biggest wind farm under construction in California. Plus, what's next for embryonic stem cell research? This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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