Swamp gas?
April 17, 2006 4:05 PM   Subscribe

Research: Where should I look for stories or journalism about the type of thing that happened in the Superdome during Katrina, specifically where people believed (and reported to the press) that they had seen horrific acts that later were determined never to have taken place? I'm not even sure what the correct term would be (mass hysteria?) but I'm interested in the unreliability of primary sources in journalism, especially as it relates to Katrina.
posted by klangklangston to Human Relations (11 answers total)
I can't be of help regarding where to research this phenomenon, but you may be interested in reading an article that appeared a few days ago in the sf chronicle (they're running a series on the 06 earthquake to commemerate the centinenial) which noted that this sort of disinformation is common after disasters.

Tall stories don't crumble
posted by fishfucker at 4:17 PM on April 17, 2006

Researching the "War of the Worlds" radio show panic might be interesting (or at least entertaining) for you (my parents were kids when it happened, and I used to enjoy listening to their accounts of the whole kerfuffle). It's hard to imagine in today's world, but many, many people actually believed that we were being invaded by the Martians back then. They even made a star-studded TV movie about it.
posted by Gator at 4:20 PM on April 17, 2006

This may be more trouble than it's worth, but you could try searching the microfilm records of big papers' corrections from the weeks after Katrina. The New York Times and other papers would almost certainly publish corrections for any major errors.

Then again, some of that stuff is hard to recover. I remember watching CNN on Sept. 11, 2001 and hearing the reporters say things that turned out to be untrue; for instance, at one point an anchor announced that the Capitol had been bombed. It was taken back quickly, and I never heard it mentioned again.

Newspaper corrections are easy to search, but one might argue that broadcast journalism reaches farther with less chance for "takebacks." To get those, you might have to actually call some reporters and interview them ...
posted by brina at 4:28 PM on April 17, 2006

I suspect your best approach would be to think of them as urban legends. Such stories frequently make it into the media, complete with one or two oddballs standing up and saying "Really! I saw it with my own eyes!".

A snopes search on Katrina yields some promising results in terms of things that made it into print, but may or may not be true.
posted by tkolar at 4:41 PM on April 17, 2006

Don't know what this is called, but there was a similar kerfuffle years ago in the South over a "church arson epidemic" that targeted churches in Black communities. The story snowballed to the point where just about every church fire in the region was considered part of the pattern, until USA Today put the data in context and showed that, while there certainly were racist arsonists running around, they were hardly as active as everyone thought.

The Columbia Journalism Review is good for stuff like this, though I don't know what exactly you would search for.
posted by Brian James at 4:59 PM on April 17, 2006

I did a Google search for "katrina superdome reporting" and found a couple stories: Times-Picayune, September 26. LA Times, September 27, 2005.

I'm interested in the unreliability of primary sources in journalism--

From the articles, the impression I got was that the big problem with the Katrina reporting was the unreliability of secondary sources (people repeating stories they'd heard), not primary sources (people reporting what they'd actually seen).
posted by russilwvong at 5:43 PM on April 17, 2006

Interesting blog post about one such story.
posted by knave at 6:00 PM on April 17, 2006

Response by poster: Russil— I interviewed the lead reporter for those stories, the one who had been at the Superdome, and he said that the problem was that he would have four or five "credible" sources coming up to him, saying that they saw things with their own eyes, including "authority" figures in the area (cops, etc.). The chief of police managed to get fired over several statements that he made that turned out to not be true (like that he had ordered SWAT teams in and that they were confiscating a fair number of guns after shoot-outs, which turned out to be all invented whole-cloth).
posted by klangklangston at 6:48 PM on April 17, 2006

When we were sitting at Causeway and I-10, waiting to go in, two T.P. reporters came barrelling up in a car, stopped long enough to say,
"Another levee's broken, and this place could be underwater in hours! Have you heard anything about it?"
Then they peeled out.
My experience there was that people were pretty scared, and ready to believe anything. Cell phones were mostly not working, and rumors were flying at incredible rates. One guy in particular I knew would tell me the most fantastic bullshit. I started asking people "Did you see that yourself?"
Mostly the answer was no. Three said yes. One guy, the most credible, was a TV weather guy who had gone in on a boat. He said they were armed, and when they would see other people wading through the water, those people would show their weapons, as if to say, "You go your way, and we'll go ours."
Another guy said he saw a cop shooting a shotgun at a crowd of people, and the last said he saw some guys atop a store shooting across the street he was boating down at something he could not see. These two were less credible, but they at least said they actually saw it themselves.
I could go on, but bottom line: few level heads, a lot of fear.
posted by atchafalaya at 7:56 PM on April 17, 2006

this reminds me of 9/11 as well. there was a persistent report that a plane was headed towards the sears tower; and pretty much the entire loop was emptied. i don't know if we were evacuated, but almost everyone was sent home in some capacity.

i also remember it took the news days to settle on a realistic number of people inside the towers. i remember an early number reported several times was "close to eleven thousand," based on the buildings' capacity (i think).

that was the day that i realized the press will respond to the same insanity as the rest of us, is just as frightened, and in some cases will use that fear to goose their own viewer ratings.
posted by patricking at 8:12 PM on April 17, 2006

The most prominent example I'm aware of was on a special Oprah.

She was speaking to the chief of police (probably the same guy mentioned by klangklangston) and he was talking about things like babies being raped or killed. He was choking up with tears, and Oprah kept saying "No! NO!".

I definitely saw this footage shortly after Katrina, as a promo for the show, although I didn't see the show itself. It was filmed outdoors, on a highway, and either Oprah or both of them were in a stationary vehicle. He might have been outside talking through the window.

This is the only article I know specifically about the urban legends that came out of the Katrina/the Stadium:

posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:22 PM on April 17, 2006

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