Column: ‘Is it true, is Ted Failon dead?’

“Catastrophizing” disaster coverage. Published on November 19, 2013.

Read, and wince. “During this time, they said, girls and boys were raped in the dark and had their throats cut and bodies were stuffed in the kitchens while looters and madmen exchanged fire with weapons they had looted.” It won’t be easy to identify which esteemed media organization ran this sensational passage.

This post-apocalyptic vision was a description of the horrifying conditions at the Convention Center in New Orleans, days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the famous city in August 2005. But as it turns out, it was a description that was not (and perhaps could not have been) independently verified. The source (the “they” who did the saying) were unnamed refugees; other sensational details in the story with the remarkable headline “City of rape, rumour and recrimination,” could also not be verified, or were later proven false.

The British spelling in the headline is a clue, but it isn’t much of one. Because that story, with that headline, and that passage, was published by the “normally staid” Financial Times.

The quote is from Brian Thevenot (in 2005 a reporter for the Times-Picayune who covered the hurricane and its gruesome aftermath) who was guilty of using some of the same “catastrophizing” language in his reports and then, about a month after Katrina, controversially reviewed his work and corrected his mistakes, together with a colleague. He later codified his reflections in a story for the American Journalism Review.

What happened in New Orleans? (CNN’s Anderson Cooper became a network star because of his heart-on-sleeve coverage of Katrina and its calamitous aftermath.) Here’s Thevenot:

“The Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Washington Post followed up with similar, well-researched efforts debunking myths and coming to essentially the same conclusion we had: While anarchy indeed reigned in the city, and subhuman conditions in the Dome and the Convention Center shocked the nation’s conscience, many if not most of the alarmist reports of violence were false, or at least could not be verified.”

But weren’t many of these reports, even Thevenot’s, or indeed that of the writer for the
Financial Times, based on credible, even authoritative, sources? Thevenot’s conclusion is sobering, especially in the light of the initially anarchic conditions (and frequent reports of nighttime rapes) in some of the areas hit hardest by Supertyphoon “Yolanda.”

“I’m more inclined to go with an expanded version of [CNN anchor] Aaron Brown’s gossip-line theory: that stories that may have started with some basis in fact got exaggerated and distorted as they were passed orally—often the only mode of communication—through extraordinarily frustrated and stressed multitudes of people, including refugees, cops, soldiers, public officials and, ultimately, the press….
“A person might have seen a man passed out from dehydration in the Superdome, for instance, and assumed he was dead, then assumed there must be more dead. In the retelling, it becomes, ‘There’s bodies in the Dome.’ Retold a few more times by stressed and frightened people—all the way up to the mayor—and it became, ‘There’s so many bodies in the Dome you can’t count them’.”

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was retailing such sordid facts, duly reported—and it turns out even he could not attest to their veracity.

Thevenot’s reflections led him to make three suggestions to his colleagues in the profession. First is “persistent questioning of sources—about their sources.” Second, “careful and frequent qualification,” for instance by asserting that one particular fact could not be independently verified. And third: embrace “the correcting of major news stories as news itself, not something to be buried in a corrections box.”

Here, from someone I trust, is a simplified example of what can go wrong, even when one is talking to actual survivors. A flight of exhausted refugees arrived in Villamor Airbase at around 1 a.m. last Sunday; the passengers included a family who, while waiting for their ride out of the base, asked one of the volunteers, “Patay na daw si Ted Failon?” These survivors had decided to leave their part of Leyte four or five days after Yolanda; they walked several hours to get to the airport in Tacloban, and after a day or so, arrived in Pasay City. And one of their burning questions was whether it was indeed true that Failon, the popular news anchor who was a one-term congressman from their province, had died in the storm.

The survivors (two sisters, a brother and an aunt) also spoke of rumors of rape, stories about vans filled with goons and roaming around power-less neighborhoods at night, committing rape after rape. It is possible, of course, that the stories are true; but (learning from the Katrina coverage) mere assertion should no longer suffice. In times of catastrophe, there is even less reason to use “he said, she said” reporting.

* * *

The Jaime V. Ongpin Endowed Fund honored me with an invitation to give the 12th Annual Memorial Lecture on Public Service in Business and Government—tomorrow, Nov. 20, from 9 a.m., at the Ateneo de Manila Professional Schools in Rockwell, Makati City. I was asked to speak on social media, and I have narrowed the subject to “The End of Social Media.”

The depth of my gratitude can be measured in part by the undoubted gravitas of the first 11 lecturers, starting with the indispensable analyst of the pork barrel scandal Randy David, who gave the inaugural lecture in 2001. As I said in my reply after I received the invitation: I will accept the invite before you realize you made a mistake and take it back!

I will not be able to tweet during the forum (@jnery_newsstand), but if you’re in the hashtag business, please follow, or use, #jvo12 or #endofsocmed.

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