Recently our deputy managing editor was running the daily Page One news meeting when the wire editor announced this story:Zeeck goes on to list a number of specific, widely-reported, shocking stories that simply never happened. That's a lot of misinformation. What conclusions should we draw?
"Knight Ridder is moving a story that says an analysis of data now suggests that some widely reported assumptions about Hurricane Katrina were incorrect," said Kathleen Cooper, the wire editor. "They're saying the data show the victims weren't disproportionately poor or African American."
Dale Phelps, the deputy M.E., laughed and facetiously asked: "Wasn't anything we reported about Hurricane Katrina accurate?"
There was a burst of laughter at the news meeting, but everyone there also felt the sting in Dale's question.
Well, first, these stories weren’t invented by the media. They originated with public officials. Mayors. Police chiefs. Sheriffs. Senators. Dispatchers. National Guard officers. People in a position to know the truth. If the reporters had been mere stenographers, satisfied only to quote official sources, the stories might be proof of journalistic incompetence.We'll give him that. The reason we eventually found out the truth (Or should we say "are finding out") about the Hurricane Katrina victims is because good reports did the followup work. Reporters like John Simerman, Dwight Ott, and Ted Mellnik, who wrote the Knight Ridder story, kept digging. Zeeck also mentions another Knight Ridder reporter, George Pawlaczyk, who debunked another false story reported on NPR.
But the second thing to remember is that the reporting didn’t stop. Good reporters and solid news organizations kept after the story, ran the fabrications and exaggerations to ground, and exposed them as rumors, half-truths and fables.
So in a sense, the system is "self-correcting." The problem is that the corrections occur much later and are less prominently reported. If it bleeds it leads, as the saying goes. A corollary is that corrections are destined to be buried. Even if the corrections did get as much play as the original stories, by the time the truth comes out many people have stopped paying attention. Now that everybody "knows" that the Katrina victims were all poor and black and consequently ignored by the Evil Republicans, the truth has a hard time breaking through.
Of course, the most blatant racial stereotype today is the notion that conservatives are racists while liberals are champions of the black underclass. This is a big part of the reason the Katrina victims became victims of GWB in the eyes of many in and out of the media. Statistics can refute that, but some will still claim the original stories were "fake but accurate."