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Saturday, September 24, 2005

More on the Rita gridlock and gas shortages

Ken Hoffman's humor column in the Houston Chronicle that I quoted in my last post goes on to make an excellent point about the excesses of local TV news coverage as contributing to the evac gridlock, with which I generally agree:

When this is over, and everybody's home, two things need to be investigated and corrected: Houston's evacuation plans — and television news' role in making us all crazy this past week.

Mr. Hoffman followed up on this point with some humorous examples of broadcast news overkill. I respectfully submit, however, that his own employer also needs to do some of the same soul-searching that he recommends for the broadcast media.

The problem wasn't just the unrelenting breathlessness of the media coverage (print or broadcast), or even mainly that. The problem was with the inaccuracies, omissions, and misjudgments in the reporting.

Just about every Rita-related print story (online or on dead trees) and radio or TV broadcast on Wednesday and Thursday needed to make it absolutely clear that city and county authorities in Houston were not calling for a mass, total evacuation. Yes, the media needed to be talking about evacuation, because people in the mandatory evac zones, and others elsewhere with special vulnerabilities, definitely needed to know that they were being urged to evacuate. But the media also needed to be responsible and accurate in reporting who weren't being urged by officials to evacuate. (That, by the way, is different than saying "urged to stay put" — which would also have been inaccurate, because until the gridlock got awful and the storm got close, authorities weren't urging folks outside the evac zones to stay put either.) In my humble opinion, both print and broadcast media mostly failed that test.

The map graphic showing the mandatory evacuation zones (a slightly edited version of which I posted Thursday evening) needed to be the most prominent image of the Hurricane Rita coverage — instead of being something that you could maybe find if you were a genuine internet dilettante with an Adobe Acrobat-enabled browser and a broadband connection who was willing to drill down through some online links. On a 1-to-10 scale: Importance of that map = 10. Importance of continuous display of TV anchors' fearless faces = zero.

The Katrina experience, plus the media hype and especially its inaccuracies, were the dual proximate causes of the gridlock and the resulting gas shortage. And even in immediate hindsight, it seems fairly obvious that it was only by the grace of God (and, or perhaps through, a high-pressure system that steered Rita to the east) that the gridlock and gas shortages didn't cost the Houston area lots more property damage, injury, and loss of life. We can't control the sequencing of the next few hurricanes, nor am I suggesting that any outside authorities try to control what the media do next time. But if the blogosphere can be a gadfly to nag the mainstream media into being more responsible, that is a worthwhile thing to do.

Posted by Beldar at 08:13 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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Comments

(1) Xrlq made the following comment | Sep 25, 2005 9:46:26 AM | Permalink

Gridlock is one problem, but having any place to stay once you get through it is another. I'm in Irving right now (about midway between Dallas & Fort Worth) and there is 100% occupancy everywhere. Is the whole state like that, or does everyone trek toward Dallas by default?

(2) hunter made the following comment | Sep 25, 2005 9:58:28 AM | Permalink

Ken and you have it exaqctly right.
The wall-to-wall coverage.
The minimizing of the clear facts that the storm was weakening, was never going strike close, and was not a real threat was aggravating. The adivce to flee instead of sheltering in place. The formerly great Dr. Frank repeating the nightmare sci-fi scenarion of storm surges in downtown Houston, the clearly exhausted and sleep deprived 'journalists' asking ever stupider questions. All this will stay with me for life.
And frankly the abdication of leadership by our mayor, even as he bacame more pre-emptive in his demands was interesting to watch.
The abuse to our city's economy will take awhile to recover from.
The mourning for the senseless deaths will take longer.

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