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Will the quality of journalism recede with Katrina's floodwaters?

When tragedy strikes, journalism quality spikes.

The coverage of hurricane Katrina over the past week has demonstrated what news ought to be.

Not another licking-the-spoon front pager about the collapse of a rookie 49er. Not another chapter of Alicia Parlette's poignant, but singular duel with cancer on the Chronicle's cover. Not another top-of-the-fold episode in the bizarre life of a charming rogue who happened to hang with a Mercury News reporter when both were in high school. Not another night of isolated acts of violence on local TV.

But the panoramic drama of a monster storm washing away the possessions of hundreds of thousands and revealing the alienation, poverty, racial division and lack of disaster preparedness of our nation.

Did you notice reporters actually challenging the happy talk of federal officials? Showing compassion for victims? Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable?

It was spunky, socially responsible journalism!

Why is journalism good when times are bad?

Why is it so rare? Why is it reserved for natural disasters like Katrina or the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, and man-made disasters like 9/11?

John McManus

Why not apply this skepticism of official rhetoric and anger at indifference and this journalistic empathy for the victims to the slow-motion tragedy of a public education system that doesn't work for most of California's students born to poor parents? To the scandal of lawlessness in Richmond, East Palo Alto and the Oakland flats? To the widening inequalities of medical care?

Or to whether, when the next big earthquake strikes the Bay Area, we'll avoid the fatally delayed governmental response to Katrina?

Some pundits claim that Katrina shook the news media from bobbing-head coverage of Iraq and the Bush administration's domestic policies. Aroused from their torpor, reporters now will hold the powerful to account and champion the powerless.

Katrina "doesn't just have legs, it has tentacles," Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, told USA Today. "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."

Don't count on it.

There was nothing phony in the quality of the reporting you've witnessed. Journalists took risks training cameras on looters in New Orleans and negotiating rising waters in small boats. News executives bent budgets to cover a story in an environment where the normal infrastructure of reporting --phones, cars, open roads, and accessible knowledgeable government sources -- aren't operating.

It's comforting to know the instinct to cover the news despite the cost still exists in American newsrooms.

Markets only rarely demand quality

But before we celebrate the return of socially responsible journalism, consider this: In times of catastrophe, the market demands quality news.

Had the Mercury News committed its front page to promote a parade of Grand Prix race cars snarling through downtown San Jose, or to boost interest in the upcoming finger-in-the-chili-bowl trial, thousands of papers would have hit the recyling bin unopened.

Had the Chronicle pushed the news of the day inside for yet another installment of its copy editor's struggle with cancer, people would have logged on to news Web sites and Alicia would have suffered on her own.

Had local TV news chased the latest fires and small tragedies, people would have switched to CNN. And notice how CNN and Fox Cable neglected the still-missing Natalee Holloway.

But the flood of public interest in Katrina is now subsiding.

As the high waters recede, so likely will the standards of journalism. The creeping catastrophes of government-fostered poverty and inequality don't have the market force of a hurricane. And newsrooms in the Bay Area and beyond don't have the professional insulation from corporate mandates to do anything other than shift back toward the entertaining content that generates the largest profit from mass markets during routine times.

It's a tragedy that it takes a tragedy to provide a glimpse of real journalism.


A useful resource documenting problems in California that journalism should address robustly is CA2025 It's Your Choice, from the Public Policy Institute of California.

Another point of view

The Youth Media Council in Oakland takes a very different view of coverage of Katrina:

"In the aftermath of Katrina, the Gulf Coast and the nation have witnessed devastation of staggering proportions. The patterns of racism and poverty are undeniable, yet the mainstream media have only reluctantly asked whether race or class played a role.

"In the entire week following Katrina, only 22 out of 1,300 stories on CNN, MSNBC and Fox focused on race or class (source: ThinkProgress). We must immediately begin shifting the public's view that this is purely a natural disaster.
"

They are soliciting letters to editors of national news media.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

Monitoring the Bay Area's most popular news media:

Contra Costa Times

Knight Ridder

San Francisco Chronicle

Hearst

San Jose Mercury News

Knight Ridder

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KTVU, Oakland (FOX)

KRON, San Francisco

KRON, San Francisco

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KPIX, San Francisco (CBS)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KGO, San Francisco (ABC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

KNTV, San Jose (NBC)

 

Bay Area media advocates:

Media Alliance
Center for the Integration and Improvement of Journalism at SFSU
Maynard Institute
Youth Media Council
Project Censored
New California Media
Society of Professional Journalists, Northern California chapter
National Writers Union Bay Area chapter

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