News Lit Tips

Breaking news reports can be hit or miss, because accuracy takes time

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated many areas along the southern coast of the United States. The storm also served as a case study of the best and worst in reporting: The worst was reflected in early reporting of rumors published without verification; the best showed in some thorough follow-up coverage.

It’s not known how many people died as a result of Katrina; estimates have ranged from fewer than 1,000 to more than 1,800. The Category 5 storm slammed into the Gulf Coast and, most notoriously, New Orleans — “notoriously,” for it was that city that bore the brunt of the high winds and hard rains and that showed up most often in media reports across the country and world.

As the levees crumbled and much of the city flooded, early news reports led to what Los Angeles Times reporters described a month later as “a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans’ main evacuation shelter.” “Katrina Takes a Toll on Truth, News Accuracy” recounted tales published during the storm that were exaggerated or just plain wrong. Some news outlets published information about rapes, robberies and drownings that later proved groundless. Even the city’s mayor and police chief were behind some of the bogus information.

The lesson here: Producing a credible report as big events unfold takes time, because verifying facts and quotations takes time.

However, given that time, news outlets can shine as they track down and report credible information that is not always available in the chaos of breaking news. One year later, in 2006, two outlets in the eye of the storm — The Times-Picayune in New Orleans and the Sun Herald in Biloxi-Gulfport, Mississippi — were honored with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reports on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, including articles that examined the failures at local, regional and national levels that contributed to the devastation.

Readers, viewers and listeners craving information as major events unfold should beware: Verification takes time. Even in the rush of breaking news, look to see if an outlet has noted its efforts to verify information. Only time can tell what is true — time, and good reporters.