Covering New Orleans: The Decade Before the Storm

By BYRON CALAME

New York Times

September 11, 2005

THE early coverage of the devastation of New Orleans revealed a depth of poverty and a troubled levee system that caught many by surprise. As a national newspaper with high aspirations, The New York Times assumes a responsibility to alert its readers to significant problems as they emerge in major cities such as New Orleans.

Poverty so pervasive that it hampered evacuation would seem to have been worthy of The Times's attention before it emerged as a pivotal challenge two weeks ago. And the inadequacies of the levee system deserved to be brought to the attention of readers more clearly long before the storm hit.

Yet a look back over the past 10 years of Times coverage of New Orleans in its news columns raises serious questions about how well the paper helped readers recognize and understand these two major problems that have compounded the devastation and tragedy of the storm.

Poverty emerged as a life-and-death issue as Hurricane Katrina approached the city on Sunday, Aug. 28, and it became clear that many poor residents didn't have cars in which to evacuate. To make matters worse, many poor residents lived in low-lying areas where flooding arrived the soonest and rose the highest.

As we're now being reminded almost daily, more than two-thirds of the residents of New Orleans are black, and about one in four citizens lives in poverty. The Times has noted that in the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, which was inundated by the floodwaters, 98 percent of the residents are black and more than a third live in poverty.

"As a close reader of The Times and of poverty trends," S. M. Miller, of Brookline, Mass., told me in an e-mail last week, "I was surprised to learn of the poverty conditions that prevailed in New Orleans. ... Why didn't the economic-social-racial conditions in New Orleans get some attention in the paper?" His conclusion: "The Times let us down."

Indeed, over the past decade Times readers would have been hard-pressed to find a news headline about the poverty in the midst of the city that brings to the minds of many Americans the revelry of Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street. A search of substantive Times news articles about New Orleans since September 1995, conducted with the help of a researcher for the paper, found none that focused on the city's poor and the racial dimension of poverty. And there were only two articles about the city - both feature stories - that contained a few paragraphs on poverty and race.

Poverty's presence was vividly described in a November 2000 feature article in the Weekend section. "Poverty persists, cheek by jowl with wealth, much of it inherited," the article said. "A block or two from mansions with palm-shaded gardens stand crude unpainted bungalows fronting on crumbling streets, more reminiscent of the third world than dot-com America." It added: "Most of the poor, in a city almost three-quarters black, are African-American." Unfortunately, however, finding these words required reading to the 16th paragraph of the 3,700-word article.

A 1996 Sunday Magazine profile of the city's police superintendent noted that more residents of New Orleans lived in poverty then than in any other large American city except Detroit. The article suggested that the ghettos of New Orleans "have been ignored for decades because even though black politicians have controlled City Hall since 1978, African-Americans have never broken the white hold on economic power." These insights didn't come until the 12th paragraph of the 3,400-word article.

What readers would have been more likely to find in The Times's past decade of news coverage of New Orleans were stylishly written articles about the city's charm, cuisine and colorful characters. While some of those articles dealt with crime in the city's predominantly black neighborhoods, the issue of poverty was seldom explored in any depth.

Levees obviously remain a central issue in the crisis. As experts expected, Katrina showed that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would send water over the top of the city's levees and flood its below-sea-level "bowl." But the breaches in levees and canal walls made things dramatically worse and raised broader questions about the area's flood control system.

What had The Times's news columns provided over the past decade to help its readers understand the New Orleans levee system? One major article that focused on levees. The 2,100-word article on the front of the Science section in 2002 made clear that a Category 4 or 5 hurricane would send water over the top of the levees. While the public editor's focus is on news coverage, there was also an Editorial Observer commentary in 2002 that took a detailed look at the problem, based on reporting in New Orleans. But neither the news article nor the editorial commentary prepared readers for the possibility of breaches in the levees or canal walls.

The article in the Science section did paint a prescient picture: "Water cascading over the levee wall ... is just one part of the nightmare, the experts say. Draining the city after the storm moves away may take weeks, they point out. The city would be trapped inside the levees, steeped in a worsening 'witches' brew' of pollutants like sewage, landfill waste, chemicals and the bodies of drowned humans and animals."

Given the dimensions of poverty in New Orleans and the city's dependence on a levee system, The Times's news coverage of these problems over the past decade falls far short of what its readers have a right to expect of a national newspaper.

Sources and Motives

When anonymous sources are used in articles, The Times's policy calls for telling readers as much as possible about their motivation. At the same time, however, named sources are showing up in the paper without relevant background information that would help readers assess their comments. In a similar vein, readers also deserve to know relevant facts about Op-Ed page contributors and individuals who write letters to the editor.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and the City Council, a May article reported, had agreed to adopt proposed legislation that would establish so-called potty parity for restrooms in certain public places. The proposal, now enacted, requires the affected establishments to provide women with roughly two bathroom stalls for each stall or urinal available to men.

This assessment appeared in the fourth paragraph of the article: " 'I think it's very important, because New York City tends to set the standard, as they did when they banned smoking, which was immediately followed in many other jurisdictions,' said John F. Banzhaf III, a professor of public interest law at George Washington University who has studied the issue."

Saying Mr. Banzhaf has "studied the issue" suggests that he was a detached expert. In fact, Mr. Banzhaf has been a party to at least one formal complaint filed with the Department of Education about a public facility on a college campus and has been referred to as the "Father of Potty Parity." Readers absolutely deserved to know this.

This problem can exist in the opinion pages, too, even though the expectations of readers coming to those pages should be a little different. In a recent Op-Ed article about Internet companies and revolutionary technology, "Irreplaceable Exuberance," the author identification line read simply: "Henry Blodget, a former Wall Street analyst, writes frequently for Slate."

Missing was the fact that Mr. Blodget has been barred from the securities business for life under a 2003 agreement with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He had also paid a $4 million fine. It wasn't enough, it seems to me, for Mr. Blodget to remark in a parenthetical aside well down in his article, "This was an unfortunate theory of mine - one that, along with some e-mails that caught the notice of the Securities and Exchange Commission, helped my Wall Street career go the way of eToys."

Finally, there's the Book Review section's egalitarian treatment of its letters to the editor. Its policy is to use just the letter writer's name and city, eschewing titles and other claims to fame. The Aug. 21 issue published several letters that quarreled with a recent cover essay on possible media bias by Richard A. Posner.

One of the more robust letters - in both its passion and its length - was signed by plain Bill Keller, New York. It was, indeed, the same Bill Keller who is executive editor of The Times. Several readers have asked why notice was not taken of his special position.

"After all," said Peter M. Knapp, of Pembroke, Mass., "he was writing as a twice-vested insider on a matter, published in his own newspaper, about his profession." He added, "If there was ever a case for 'disclosure,' this certainly is it."