Like just about everyone else who has access to TV and the internet, I am stunned by the news coming out of the Gulf Coast regions smashed by Hurricane Katrina earlier this week.
I try, in my own small way, to imagine what it must be like to be in that situation. And I realize that, with all or most communication systems still down, that lack of information might be one of the most frustrating and frightening aspects of surviving in the aftermath. No phones. No power, so no radio or TV for the most part. No newspapers. And don’t even think about the internet.
For many Southerners in the wake of Katrina, word of mouth has become the new 21st-century medium. That must be a rude awakening…
WHY THE NEWS MATTERS
We’ve grown accustomed to instant information, anywhere, from myriad sources. Even the illiterate (or computer illiterate) have access to dozens or hundreds of TV channels and radio stations. We take this stream of information for granted, as much as we take for granted the images our retinas transmit to our brains.
We are social creatures. We rely on communication for our very survival. For most people, isolation is one of the most psychologically disorienting and traumatic experiences possible. When you can’t get information in, and you can’t get information out, your world suddenly becomes frighteningly small and terrifyingly uncertain.
What must it be like to see such devastation in your neighborhood and not really know its extent? To trudge through flooded streets desperately clinging to rumors you’ve heard of of a rescue station in this-or-that location? To arrive at the place of rumored rescue only to find growing crowds of similarly destitute, injured, disoriented people milling about with no supplies, no privacy, and no clue whether or how help might arrive.
IS THE NET TRULY RELEVENT?
Over the last few years I have become a creature of the internet. Consequently, I feel utterly stunned and irrelevent at the moment.
It’s amazing to me that from some of the worst locations, word is getting out. For instance, the web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune has been publishing some of the most amazing citizen journalism (mostly first-hand accounts) I’ve even seen. Here’s a brief but stellar example posted there today:
By Justin Dees
I have received new information regarding the condition at University Hospital on Gravier and Perdido. There are over 800 people trapped. It has been confirmed that many deaths are occurring, most devastating is the deterioration of the neo-natal intensive care unit.
This information has been confirmed from two separate inside parties. Rescue efforts have to be directed to this hospital immediately.
There have been comments to the insiders that it may take a week for this hospital to be completely evacuated. This just cannot be.
I pray that a strong military/Coast Guard presence takes hold in the city, thereby enabling rescue efforts to commence. Otherwise, private efforts will need to be made.
If you have any new information on rescue efforts at this hospital, please contact me at JLD05@fsu.edu
…As far as I can determine right now, Dees is referring to Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, whose site currently offers only emergency information. Here is more about that hospital’s neighborhood. I don’t know how he managed to get internet access but I assume that hospital still has emergency power and communications of some kind. I’m grateful that he posted his brief, compelling account. I hope help arrives soon.
THE POWER OF SHARING NEWS
In this kind of situation, having any ability to obtain and convey useful information must feel incredibly rewarding. Yesterday, Times-Picayune editor Peter Kovacs was quoted in Poynter.org:
…Kovacs sounded better than you might think, buoyed by what he described as an energized staff and an appreciative readership.
“People have a good idea of what they need to be doing, what they want to be doing, and they’re getting a lot of positive response from readers,” he said.
“We’re in a position to provide people with information that they can get nowhere else. We have a bigger staff than anybody else, and we know the city really well. It has not been difficult to get people to rise to the task.”
He estimates that many, perhaps most of the staff have lost their homes but very few know for sure one way or another.
ALL REPORTERS ARE CITIZEN JOURNALISTS
This, and other accounts (including reports from journalists I know personally who live along the Gulf Coast) really brings home this point: When it’s down to the wire, even the pros are citizen journalists. We are all connected to our communities, and the news we cover.
I hope that this experience show all reporters pros and amateurs alike how crucial and fundamentally human our role is. Reporting the news really isn’t like any other job. It helps hold society together. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on a broadband net connection, or shouting bulletins verbally to a gathered crowd of refugees. If you are reporting, and you are honestly doing your best to convey accurate and useful information to the people who need it most, be proud.
(…Incidentally, the Times-Picayune has been publishing only electronically since the disaster struck, but is expected to resume some print publishing today. Best of luck to my friends and colleagues in the region. You’re in my thoughts.)