Crouteau and Hoynes addressed many of the characteristics of CNNization with depth and insight, but they did not adequately address one of the most important results of 24/7 media- myth and misinformation in the news. That is not to say that there were not errors in the media before CNN came into existence. However, the magnitude and propagation of errors have been amplified by the ubiquity of 24/7 news channels in our lives; “Journalistic half-truths and non-truths have always been with us, and probably always will be. But what is new, and a direct consequence of the creation of the 24-hour rolling news channels (aided and abetted by the Internet) is the sheer speed at which news– including those half-truths – is carried across the world”. An additional factor is that once one network has reported something, that is often enough verification for another network to feel justified in broadcasting that same information; “…working in the news is like playing a giant game of telephone. Someone reports something, and everyone else follows suit. The truth gets lost along the way”.
In recent times, there has been incredible pressure between the major networks to be the first to report a story. The concept of “scooping” has changed dramatically in the past 20 years; in pre-1991 news, “scooping” meant discovering a story first that might’ve been missed by other news investigators (i.e. the Watergate scandal). For disasters like a hurricane, all news would be broadcasting at around the same time for an allocated time slot (typically an hour) so the advantage of speed would not be a factor in winning audience attention. Since adopting a 24/7 news cycle, however, networks are in perpetual competition to be the first to broadcast a story as “breaking news” the instant it happens—especially cataclysmic disasters or newly discovered scandals. As one reporter stated it “With 24-7 news, the deadline is always now, you go with whatever you’ve got, you stick it on the air”. Extensive fact-checking or verification can make or break one’s ability to be the first to report news events, and as such, is often abandoned. It is true that in cases like Katrina “appropriate caution can’t lead to paralysis. Backing off aggressive reporting of scenes where “official” information and sources, in some cases, literally don’t exist isn’t an option.”. But putting a story on before appropriately verifying facts or context can lead to far-reaching effects that transcend merely misinforming a curious public.
In the case of Katrina, rumors reported as facts by 24/7 news channels had real effects on both rescue efforts and the psyche of the victims. The days following the storm were wrought with confusion and chaos as citizens and politicians alike struggled to understand what was happening. Media reporters covering Katrina often had the role of “first responders”, arriving at locations of strife and conflict before government or rescue officials did. While this had many beneficial results-better media members as first response than no response at all- it also gave reporters more freedom to put things on the air that they had not adequately verified. This flexibility was possible because there were no other people that had more information that could refute what reporters were saying, including the government and police. In fact, many politicians seemed to be getting the bulk of their information from news reporting instead of through the bureaucratic process
The most damaging of myths propagated by 24/7 news networks during the coverage of Hurricane Katrina was probably exaggerated reports of crimes committed in the hurricane’s aftermath. Committed to the principle of “if it bleeds, it leads”, CNN, MSNBC and FOX all ran stories of horrific looting and assaults in the days following the storm. The FOX channel went so far as to issue “alerts” of “robberies, rapes, carjackings, riots and murder. Violent gangs are wandering the streets….”(). While there was definitely looting in the wake of Hurricane Katrina as well as several confirmed cases of sexual assault, 24/7 news outlets magnified reports that far exceeded realities.
It is true that much of the communication break-down can be blamed on the actual lack of infrastructure in post-Katrina New Orleans. After the storm, landlines and cell phone reception were virtually non-existent—even the critical 911 service wasn’t functioning in 13 counties. Information tended to be spread through the social networks of New Orleanians by word of mouth. A detailed study published in 2010 revealed that 78% of respondents had been subjected to rumor in the days following the hurricane. However, those reporting for the 24 hour news channels should have been more cognizant of where they received their information, instead of using the communication breakdown as an excuse for broadcasting erroneous stories.
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