Herald Journal Columns
Dec. 5, 2005, Herald Journal

Media-fueled myth scares helpers


One of the most disturbing urban myths about the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the one that kept many relief workers from helping victims, bit the dust Nov. 24.

Remember how the news media reported eight snipers on a bridge shooting at relief workers? Many emergency medical responders, police officers, firefighters, National Guardsmen and volunteers were actually afraid if they went to New Orleans they might be shot trying to help people.

The Los Angeles Times has been investigating the stories of all the myths, such as the toxic flood water, cannibalism and armed gangs raping and attacking residents who didn’t evacuate. The Times found out the story about the shootings was greatly exaggerated and the facts remain elusive.

The original story from the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported that on Sept. 4 police had caught eight snipers on Danziger bridge shooting at relief contractors. In the gun battle that followed, the police killed five or six of them.

One of the police officers was quoted as saying the incident showed the police department’s resolve in keeping the streets safe.

The Times, on the other hand, found only two who were shot by police.

One of those was a mentally handicapped man, who rarely left his home. The mentally handicapped man was desperately hungry and finally came outside to look for food.

The other shooter was from a solidly middle class family.

Both “shooters” had stories that were radically different than what was in the New Orleans newspaper. The teenager who was critically wounded said in an interview with the Times that the police shot him for no reason, delivering a final bullet at point blank range with what looked like an assault rifle.

The “news” about the snipers was broadcast and retold over and over across the nation. The story served to keep volunteers out of areas where they could have helped. I overheard a truck driver from Cokato question whether it was safe to drive relief supplies to New Orleans because of the snipers.

One of the theories about how this urban myth was fueled is that often mainstream media assume the original news outlet confirmed the facts before broadcasting or publishing them, so the rest of the media just repeats the story.

In this case, the New Orleans newspaper didn’t confirm much of anything. There were large gaps in the police and families’ accounts of what happened. The rest of the media reported the New Orleans version as gospel truth.

There might be a worse reason than that, though. Many of the New Orleans police officers abandoned their posts during the hurricane and aftermath. The news media might have been trying to rehabilitate their reputations by making the officers into heroes. That would shift the focus away from local officials’ inept response to the disaster to federal officials.

I’m glad the aftermath of Katrina wasn’t as lawless as reported. I wonder, though, if more lives could have been saved if the inaccurate news account hadn’t scared off relief workers.

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