Robert Siegel, the host of NPR’s “All Things Considered,” had barely finished interviewing a New Orleans City Hall computer tech whose family lost five homes after Katrina when a Houston businessman called to offer his vacation home for them to live in. And every time host Michele Norris talks to a once and future resident of New Orleans East named Sharon White, listeners call to offer money or help. Same thing when Alix Spiegel profiled the Mattio family from the Lower Ninth Ward as they struggled to get out of a dangerous, crime-ridden FEMA motel in Baton Rouge.
"The Friends of The Times-Picayune Relief Fund"We expect some listeners to grouse about our steadfast coverage of Iraq, the Middle East, and topics like Africa’s intractable poverty. And in recent focus groups, our listeners have met — and exceeded — that expectation. During a focus group session in Raleigh, North Carolina, one listener tied together all these stories and Katrina with a big black bow. “I kind of always want the hope(ful) ones, but that’s me,” this listener told us that night. “I just kind of get depressed over the really sad news. Like Katrina stuff, I had to turn it off; I couldn’t watch it anymore after a while.”
A year earlier, after “All Things Considered” had broadcast a week of stories from New Orleans, David Dick of St. Louis e-mailed “All Things Considered” with this message: “Pleeeeeeeeeeeeese,” he wrote, using these 13 consecutive Es, “stop that constant New Orleans coverage.” Dick described the coverage as “relentless,” like “OJ and Monica and Michael Jackson” combined.
“Enough already,” another listener wrote. “Nobody cares.”
Well, those of us who work at NPR don’t believe this. And we don’t think all our big-hearted listeners have turned into jerks with hearts of stone. Not by a long shot. We continue to cover this story because we believe it is the right thing to do — journalistically and because we have a moral imperative to do so. But even our nonprofit, not-ratings-driven radio network has to listen when devoted listeners send us a message. What we hear is not that it’s time to stop our coverage of Katrina’s aftermath: We hear that we need to do it better.
One listener in Raleigh pointed the way, though NPR had already started to shift gears. “Sometimes when the stories are about things I’ve heard a lot already, it kind of — I’m just not that interested in it,’ this person said. “If I think it’s something I already know or something I’m tired of, that’s when I turn to music usually. But if it’s kind of, if it’s something different, or maybe it’s the same thing about a different angle and it’s clear it’s a new angle right away, then to me it’s a little bit more appealing.”
So our job — as it’s always been — is to entice people with compelling journalism. We have to find fresh ways to tell the story. Life is still remarkably hard for too many of our fellow citizens across the Gulf Coast from Jefferson Parish, Louisiana to Waveland, Mississippi and part of coastal Alabama. But coming up with innovative ways to cover it is also difficult. What’s happened since Katrina is a big and very complicated story. Television, print and radio journalists have all struggled to convey the physical immensity of it. You still can drive for more than an hour around New Orleans without seeing more than scattered pockets of progress and hope amid a landscape of ruin.
Another challenge is telling a story that is often about inaction. Recovery is painfully slow. Local government still is failing its citizens. The state and federal governments never got their arms around the problems, and the levees — guess what? — aren’t ready for another big storm.
With Katrina fatigue settling in, many Americans are tuning out. There is a sense among some across the country that things are fixed and life there isreturning to “normal.” How wrong this impression is. Follow the money to get a quick grasp of the tortoise-like pace of the rebuilding process. The Times-Picayune reported in midsummer that, of the $2.7 billion ultimately expected to be spent on “permanent” post-Katrina work in Louisiana, $2.1 billion, or 78 percent, had been reviewed and approved by FEMA. But just $532 million, or 20 percent, had been released by the state.
There’s been another disconnect in the refusal by some people to accept the breadth of the government breakdown — on all levels. We just can’t believe that our can-do country fell down so badly. America doesn’t leave people on its streets without food or water for days. And it is hard for many of us to absorb the reality of findings such as when the Annals of Emergency Medicine reported that people in places Katrina visited are about 79 times more likely to attempt suicide than we are.
Those of us in the national news media have credibility problems of our own, of course. And since Katrina, our inattention to several important threads of this story has made these worse. After excellent national coverage of the storm and the levee breaks, we broke our collective promise to take on coverage of the stubborn issues of race and poverty that Katrina unmasked.1 NPR, NBC News, CNN and The New York Times are among the news organizations that have stuck with the ongoing story. The ground they share is that in each news organization people who were there when the storm hit and the levees broke refused to let the story disappear. NBC’s Brian Williams is one. Anderson Cooper another. Once it’s in your blood, it’s not possible to let it go — ratings be damned.
At NPR, we moved our Southern bureau chief from Atlanta to New Orleans. And at Katrina’s two-year anniversary, we were about to sign a new, yearlong lease on a house for our office and reporter, who serve on month-long rotations. Our Atlanta-based reporter is among our staff committed to telling the story of Mississippi’s recovery — including its struggles for affordable housing, quality mental health care, and security in future storms.
“This is one of the most important stories of our time,’’ said David Sweeney, acting national editor at NPR. “It is a priority for our desk and the whole network. We see it as a solid, long-term commitment.”
But we are trying new approaches. We’re taking a step or two back and broadcasting more big-picture stories such as the status of mental health care in the region and personal profiles of the new generation of leaders emerging after the storm. We are doing fewer incremental stories about hearings and individual studies and reports. Through our coverage, we’re trying to give listeners information they need to understand and evaluate the long-term impact on the city’s people, politics and culture.
Read transcript of a conversation with Susan Feeney (NPR), James O’Byrne and Mark Schleifstein (The Times-Picayune) on covering Katrina’s aftermath »As hard as it is to tame this mammoth story — and it’s one we’ll be chasing for a generation or more — it has another appeal. It has all the elements of the very best journalism — survival, heroism, reinvention, thievery, government ineptitude, choking bureaucracy, and failed politics. And through it all we hear the drumbeat of real human drama. Futures are at stake.
Now those sound like compelling stories even a focus group could love.
Susan Feeney is senior editor for planning at NPR’s “All Things Considered” and a former Times-Picayune reporter who founded The Friends of The Times-Picayune. See box, above.