Katrina and the New Face of the Media

September 20, 2005 (PRLEAP.COM) Business News
Are We Seeing the New Face of the Media?

Maayan S. Helle, Contributing writer My News, My Views section,
Hot Psychology Magazine

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi has spawned a huge national response – not the least of which is criticism. We have seen criticism of the federal and local governments, criticism of the citizens who didn’t leave before the storm, criticism of those who won’t leave their homes now that the storm has passed, criticism of the organizations that haven’t offered to help yet, and criticism of everyone in between.

We’ve also seen the recognition of social responsibility – average citizens helping average citizens, offering anything and everything they can to help their southern neighbors whose faces beg and cry on television every hour. We have seen overwhelming emotional devastation and desperation, and we’ve begun a national effort to lift up the devastated because every single one of us is tortured by the images and the fear of how we would handle this level of loss were it to happen to us. Right?

But one of the brightest stars in all this has been largely overlooked. Also emerging from the chaos is the beginning of a changing face of the media…

We have watched reporters crying on camera, shocked by what they’ve witnessed and terrified by their inability to do more. They have pleaded for assistance and response, they have shown their humanity and they have demanded action. They have basically done all the things for which they are so often sharply criticized for omitting in their reports.

From my perspective – and despite my participation in the field (I am one of the media’s critics myself) – it looks like the media is finally stepping up. Instead of appearing stony-faced and emotionless, reporters covering Katrina and her after effects are sympathetic, worried, concerned, scared, nervous and angry – they’re just like so much of their audience is at home. It seems we have taken a step, if just a first baby step, toward restoring public faith in the news media.

The critics of the government’s actions or inactions include members of the media itself. Rather than report favorably on the Bush administration’s response to the destruction, the news reports have repeatedly emphasized how many days passed before the president left his vacation to make a brief trip to the Gulf Coast. Headlines continue to challenge the president’s words and promises, and highlight the needs he has yet to address. His plummeting approval ratings are smattered across front pages and broadcasts at home and abroad. And this action has called the president himself to action. Isn’t that what the media is supposed to do?

At the beginning of grad school, my Intro to Journalism course hammered into us that the primary role of the media, according to our democratic laws and our constitution, is to be the government’s watchdog. We’re supposed to keep the government in check. It’s up to us to show the public where the government has messed up or forgotten something, not to sugarcoat the small successes to make them look like progress. The government is fallible. And the media is part of the system of checks and balances put in place to remind us of that fact.

Though the public has vocally lost faith in the media’s ability to fulfill that part of its duty, I think what we have seen here is a sign of change. The media has taken back some of its own voice and it’s calling for more from those who we’ve elected to protect, defend and encourage us.

This tragedy is not a political issue; it’s one based in simple humanity. There are people who need help, and it is our civil and human responsibility to do everything we can to get them that help. The government is not a single inhuman body. It is made up of people, like those in New Orleans and Waveland, Miss., as well as Houston and the other cities across the country that have adjusted their agendas and systems to accommodate the needs of those struggling. And lest we forget the individual members of the media community that shape our governing body as well.

If this movement by the media to keep the government in check is slight, it is a step nonetheless in the right direction. The failure of the media in many ways to do just this over the past few years is part of what made me want to join its ranks. What my grandparents and parents expect from the media is what I expect from the media and what I hope to be a part of: an agency by which something is accomplished, conveyed, or transferred (a definition from the dictionary).

The devastation, anguish and criticism portrayed since Hurricane Katrina hit the news waves makes me sad and angry, inspired and motivated; but it also makes me proud – proud of those covering the many sides of this event with honesty and raw truth. Everything we’re told not to do in journalism school in terms of showing our colors and emotions is what’s promising the reemergence of the media as a body in which the public can again have faith.

Maayan S. Heller is a freelance writer in Boston where she is finishing her master's degree in Print & Multimedia Journalism at Emerson College. Currently her main focus is on health/wellness/fitness writing, though she does a wide variety of feature and editorial work. She plans to professionally freelance for magazines after completing her degree.

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