It’s been two years since Hurricane Katrina’s destructive force riveted the eyes of the world on the suffering of those left in its wake. In that time, newspapers in New Orleans and Mississippi have made adjustments — from creating new beats to assuming a more aggressive voice — while national news organizations, determined to stay with the slow-moving story of recovery, wrestle with finding fresh ways to engage distant audiences.
In this collection, written by journalists who have spent significant time trying to tell this story, Nieman Reports explores particular demands and difficulties posed by coverage of an ongoing news event with no end in sight. “How do journalists continue to make this catastrophe interesting and relevant for our audiences?” asks John Burnett, a correspondent for National Public Radio. “There’s no easy answer. As they say, the low-hanging fruit is gone.” Gordon Russell, special projects editor at The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, acknowledges that while it is possible to pick up his paper and not find a story related to Katrina, “two years after the event, Katrina is still our alpha and our omega …. The ruination wrought by Katrina — with an unwitting assist from the Army Corps of Engineers — looms over nearly everything we do. And it will for years to come.”
Times-Picayune photographer Ted Jackson includes in his photo essay a picture he took of family members clinging to the columns of their porch as water rose around them. “Little did I know that this ethical dilemma and the ensuing debate with my conscience would become the theme of my storm coverage,” he writes. In excerpts from a panel discussion about Katrina coverage, Times-Picayune features editor James O’Byrne describes one of the “shortcomings of our craft” that coverage of Katrina revealed: “… we can write the story about one person’s tragic heartbreak, but when 100,000 people have tragic heartbreak and that heartbreak extends over 21 months, we just don’t have the capacity to cover that.” Rukmini Callimachi, an Associated Press reporter who covered the aftermath of Katrina from New Orleans, explains the reporting approach she developed as reporters grew accustomed to devastation surrounding them. “A lot of us had stopped describing well what we were actually seeing and hearing and smelling,” she writes. So I began deliberately to note the kind of details I might otherwise have ignored …”
As out-of-town journalists talked with him about stories they were planning to do, Jed Horne, who recently retired as metro editor of The Times-Picayune, noticed that “it’s as if reporters and editors are overawed by the backdrop of the epic storm, so much so that we can get slipshod about the foreground stories we continue to set against it.” In his photo essay, Associated Press photographer Alex Brandon observes that “Unlike the early days of Katrina when powerful images were everywhere, now it is harder to make a photo that has enough impact to draw an editor’s attention.” John Pope, a reporter with The Times-Picayune, describes ways that reporters’ personal lives — and the stresses their circumstances pose — intersect with stories they need to tell. “It’s tough to be part of the story you’re likely to be covering for the rest of your time in New Orleans, but that’s the post-Katrina reality.” Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry realizes that his pre-Katrina columns appear “to have been written by a different person. There’s a difference between writing from a city where everybody wants to come at least once to party and writing from a city that some government officials say no longer deserves to be.” In finding new ways to share local news and information with online and print audiences, Times-Picayune city editor David Meeks believes that at a time when “it’s not uncommon to hear talk in newsrooms of how it’s a good time to get out of the newspaper business, I’d argue that there never has been a more exciting time to be in it.” In photos and words, Associated Press photographer Bill Haber shares his work from a two-year assignment that “taxes the limits of my ability as no other story ever has.”
Stan Tiner, editor of the Sun Herald in Biloxi/Gulfport, Mississippi, describes changes he’s had to make in the newsroom to comprehensively tell the story of Katrina’s aftermath — in print and on the Web. “We exploded our newsgathering departmental and beat structures,” he writes. “All of the silos were leveled ….” Because reporters and editors face similar issues in their personal lives to the ones they cover, Sun Herald City Editor Kate Magandy writes of keeping a watchful eye for “evidence of any bias that a reporter might inadvertently be bringing to the piece.” And, she adds, “Editors also check editors in much the same way.” Sun Herald photographer John Fitzhugh initiated the newspaper’s popular “Before and After” series of what was there then and what remained after the storm. (He has subsequently added recovery photos — the “now” moment — to the mix.) “It allowed readers to remember what had been lost and to mourn that loss,” he writes. Tony Biffle, associate editor of the Sun Herald, offers advice from “what we’ve learned in editorializing” about Katrina’s aftermath. “Just because daily contact causes you to become familiar with shattered lives and a littered landscape, do not allow that familiarity to deaden your senses to the outrageous and the exceptional.” When mental health issues needed in-depth coverage, the Sun Herald secured foundation funding to support the work of reporter Joshua Norman, who writes that until this beat was created “our newspaper was only able to report on the growing mental health crisis in a cursory fashion.”
Susan Feeney, an NPR senior editor at “All Things Considered,” addresses “listener fatigue” with Katrina stories and describes her news organization’s response. “We continue to cover this story because we believe it is the right thing to do — journalistically …” she writes. USA Today medical reporter Liz Szabo was among the 17 staffers, primarily editors, who traveled in early 2007 to New Orleans and Mississippi to understand the depth and dimensions of a story that until then few appreciated. She quotes USA Today editor Ken Paulson as saying, “The trip was a valuable reminder that sometimes editors — and not just reporters — need to walk in the steps of the people they cover.” Jenni Bergal served as project manager at the Center for Public Integrity for a book of investigative journalism about New Orleans. “City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina,” she writes, goes “beyond many of the stories being told by newspapers and broadcast media.” Given “the luxury of time and resources,” reporters she assembled for this project could “take a step back and closely examine whether decades of ineptitude or inertia by local, state and federal government and private agencies had contributed to the failures in New Orleans.”