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Journalists Share Katrina Lessons

by Melissa A. Sullivan~ April 24, 2006


"In late August, we watched an extraordinary event, a defining moment in our history: Hurricane Katrina. As we mentioned, so many of our colleagues faced unbelievable odds in covering this story. In many ways it was our profession at its best," said Angie Kucharski, RTNDA chair-elect. Kucharski introduced the seven-member panel of journalists at Sunday's RTNDA@NAB opening super session, "Katrina: The Lessons Learned."

Shepard Smith, Fox News Channel anchor who moderated the panel, said eight months after the hurricane, journalists are still facing the challenge of keeping the story on the national stage, telling the many stories that need to be told and lessons learned in the aftermath of the storm.


WWL-AM had a plan. Dave Cohen, news director of WWL in New Orleans said Hurricane George, which hit New Orleans seven years earlier, had been like a dry run for them. Knowing what could happen helped the station prepare for Hurricane Katrina.

One of the ways WWL prepared was to contact local officials and parish leaders ahead of time and tell them where their alternative broadcasting sites were going to be.

"There were officials that drove an hour just to get to one of our contact points so they could communicate with their residents because they had no way to do it," Cohen said.

However, one of the lessons learned was that not all sources were reliable.

Sandy Breland, executive news director at New Orleans CBS affiliate WWL-TV said, "What you would typically rely on for sources - the police, fire and mayor's office - their communications systems were down, just like ours. So that was a challenge."

Breland said WWL was helped because it had an alternate broadcast site, a place to "hunker down" during the hurricane and a transmitter site that could withstand a storm.

Anzio Williams, news director of WDSU-TV, the NBC news affiliate in New Orleans, said he advises other managers to have contact information for all their employees. He said there was nothing worse than when staffers' family members called and he didn't have the information to find them.

A challenge facing some of the national stations was trying to convince their bosses in New York and other cities outside the area how bad the situation was on the Gulf Coast. Smith said it was the images from photographers like JT Alpaugh, a pilot for Helinet in Van Nuys, Calif., which helped convince those same bosses what was really happening on the Gulf Coast.

Alpaugh said he had a high-definition camera system in his helicopter and flew to New Orleans to test out the new equipment. What started out as a documentary project, became part of history.


Smith said the Hurricane Katrina story is not getting the national exposure it deserves. He asked the panel members what journalists can do.

Dan Rather, former anchor of CBS News, who was in the audience, said the way to keep the nation involved is to "ask the tough questions. Keep on asking the tough questions and being persistent about asking the tough questions."

Breland said this remains a relevant story. "People think it's all back to normal, but this is a basic quality-of-life issue. People cannot return because there is no housing, no schools for their kids and there are no hospitals. People are still waiting for trailers."

Others in the panel included Lee Cowan, correspondent for CBS News; Bob Murphy, regional vice president of programming for Clear Channel Radio; and Jack Womack, senior vice president of domestic news operations of CNN.

© 2006 NAB