Skip to main content

Hurricane Katrina Energizes TV News

Live 8, the return of the space shuttle, and the London subway bombing each had an enormous impact on television technology in the summer of 2005. Then, Katrina paid a visit to the Gulf Coast.

With that historic storm began still another turbulent period for television broadcasting. Now, a few weeks after facing this dire crisis, it may be that broadcast news coverage has been strengthened by the experience.

As old broadcast infrastructures were washed away along with fleeing local viewers, television's recent marriage with the Internet took on important new meaning as a critical way to communicate with local citizens.

In the tense days following the storm, the people of New Orleans found little value in antennas, coaxial cable, telephone or wireless communications--almost nothing worked. Emergency personnel were forced to share a single two-way radio channel.

Louisiana's governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco was furious at the loss of wireless communications, a situation that will no doubt be blamed by members of Congress on the sluggish DTV transition.

What we did learn is that the Internet has not only become a critically important television news outlet for broadcasters, but also for those independent voices who found government bureaucrats trying to become gatekeepers of information.

Not only did the storm unmask weaknesses in conventional technology, it also gave new illumination to issues related to media independence. Expect to hear much more on this subject when the FCC debate resumes on media ownership rules.

For CNN, which had started offering free online video clips in late June, the number of Web viewers surged with the rising flood waters. Katrina tripled CNN's previous online viewing record, set on the day of the London subway bombings back in July.

In local television, frivolous blow-dried anchors moved aside for ingenuous wind-swept reporters, some of whom proved to be first-rate journalists while under the gun.

New Orleans TV stations such as WWL and WDSU switched broadcast gears, using their Web sites to follow viewers in exile.

WDSU alone provided more than two million video streams of the station's live coverage in the early days of the disaster. On a single day, WWL had more than 10.5 million page views on its site.


With missing viewers and shut local businesses shuttered, the future economic base for television broadcasting in New Orleans remains uncertain.

"I think it's a fair statement to say the advertising base has been wrecked," Belo Senior Vice President Rick Keilty told The New York Times. "We're in the process of strategizing how we'll deal with that now."

Belo's WWL, the only station that never left the air in New Orleans throughout the crisis, has no clue how many on-air viewers were actually watching its broadcast signal in the days after the storm. Ratings measurement activity ceased.

But some of WWL's advertisers followed it to the Web site, replacing spots with online ads.

"We're going to be looking more and more to the Web site for advertising revenue," Keilty said.

Innovative reporters and news directors used Katrina to further refine a new generation of TV news coverage--a mix of traditional news video with personal blogs, citizen reports with images, narrated slide-shows, constantly updated text, and forums to help find missing persons. Coupled with the interactivity of the Web, it all made a compelling alternative to the television newscast of only a decade ago.

Of course, the New Orleans story had many dark sides, and one of the most outrageous was the dismal performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Not only did FEMA botch early rescue efforts, but the agency shamefully tried to hinder media coverage and impede the flow of independent information to the public.

In one example, FEMA shut down an all-volunteer low-power radio station at the Houston Astrodome that would have broadcast relief information for evacuees.

This was not pirate radio, mind you. It was an organization of volunteers with broad public support. The FCC quickly granted the station a temporary license to broadcast inside the Astrodome and the adjacent Reliant Center. The station was also endorsed by the governor of Texas and the mayor of Houston.


Yet, as local officials tell it and the Village Voice reported, bureaucrats at FEMA KO'd the station--dubbed KAMP "Dome City Radio"--because of "security concerns."

FEMA apparently didn't want an independent media presence in the Astrodome complex and added that they could not allocate "scarce" electricity, office space, and phone and Internet access to the volunteer station even though the station's operators offered to run the station on batteries and use their own cell phones.

"I'm very disappointed," council member Ada Edwards, who represents a mostly black district in central Houston, told the Voice. "One of the real challenges of this big tragedy has been access to communication--open and honest communication. I really hoped this would be an open outlet for people to get information that was unscripted and that would really address their needs."

But, Edwards noted, the bureaucrats are trying to manage the news. "It's really sad when these people feel they have to sanitize all the time."

FEMA also told the news media not to photograph the dead bodies as they are recovered. The agency rejected journalists' requests to accompany rescue boats searching for storm victims.

Journalist groups, including PEN American Center and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, protested the move.

"It's impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story," PEN's Larry Siems told Reuters.

FEMA's policy of excluding media from recovery expeditions in New Orleans is "an invitation to chaos," Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a part of Columbia University's journalism school, told Reuters.

"This is about managing images and not public taste or human dignity," Rosenstiel said.

FEMA's refusal to take journalists along on recovery missions meant that media workers would go on their own, he said.

Rosenstiel also noted that U.S. media, especially U.S. television outlets, are generally reluctant to show corpses.

"By and large, American television is the most sanitized television in the world," he said. "They are less likely to show bodies, they are less likely to show graphic images of the dead than any television in the world."

Of course, at the end of the day, the refugees will get the unvarnished news--including the images of bodies. A free and open Internet--a place where anyone can now have a TV channel--will ensure that.

Storms have a way of unmasking flaws, whether they be in building construction, communications infrastructure, bad policy, or incompetent government agencies.

The bright side of Katrina is that television news--both the corporate and independent variety--broke through to find higher ground. Let's hope they stay there.