Katrina and the media

Peter Johnson of USAToday thinks aggressive reporting in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina disaster may return us to an early “post-Watergate era of tougher scrutiny of the federal government and public policy issues.” Who can argue that this would be a good thing?

“If any good comes from the catastrophe, it will be that it signaled the beginning of the media’s reassertion of aggressive, in-your-face reporting, in which it confronts government wrongdoing, rather than just swallowing the government’s public-relations handouts,” (Fordham University communications professor Paul) Levinson says.

There are indications that the press plans to exercise its newly-rediscovered muscle on this story for a very long time. The New York Times has set up a bureau in Baton Rouge, and other media outlets plan to be there indefinitely, according to Johnson.

…experts and journalists predict that mounting questions about U.S. government preparation, policies and response to Hurricane Katrina will result in intense news coverage for months.

Katrina “doesn’t just have legs, it has tentacles,” says Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. “Its implications reach into hot-button controversies involving race, poverty, economics and partisan politics. The reach of this story will make the O.J. Simpson case look like a news brief.”

It sounds a little like this is just what the doctor ordered for an ailing press. But before we start counting profits, let’s remember that this is the same media that’s fighting for viewers and readers, in part, because people don’t trust us anymore, in part, because of the same tactics and philosophies that are now being hailed as invigorating. Can a leopard change its spots? This feels a lot like a fresh coat of paint and nothing else.

The ratings have spiked and readership has gone up in the past week, but it’s a leap to translate that as thankfulness for a reinvigorated traditional press or a thirst for “getting back to our roots.” We need to be very careful in where we go from here, for the risk is digging ourselves deeper into the ruts that pose such a serious threat to professional journalism in the first place.

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