What reporting on Katrina tells us about government and the media.
Generally speaking, the media doesn't do a very good job of covering the federal government. It's too big, it's too complicated, and the things that really matter-like how to fix procurement processes or set up effective human resources systems-are too dry and technical to hold reporters' interest. But sometimes, events involving federal operations are just too big to ignore.
Such was the case with Hurricane Katrina. In August, the Partnership for Public Service in Washington issued a report on media coverage of the hurricane and its aftermath. One of its clear conclusions was that the disaster was among the most heavily covered news events in recent memory.
The country's top 10 newspapers in terms of circulation published almost 14,000 articles mentioning Katrina in the 11 months after the storm. Ten selected papers in the Gulf Coast region published another 23,000 stories of their own. The four hurricanes that struck Florida in the summer of 2004 didn't generate a tenth of the coverage.
But the Partnership noted that amid all the reports, the topic of solutions to problems exposed by the tragedy received almost no coverage at all. In the top 10 papers, only 88 of the thousands of Katrina stories discussed "lessons learned." Indeed, the report noted, if you factor out the stories about the ouster of ex-Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown, "coverage of substantive improvements to the government's emergency management ability has been next to nonexistent."
That's an important point. But it should be delivered with a couple of caveats. First, the conclusion is based on a fairly limited search. There are doubtless stories about substantive efforts to improve emergency response that do not happen to include the buzz phrase "lessons learned." Maybe not a lot of them, but still.
Second, if you want to find out what's going on with a subject as relatively technical as the lessons learned from the federal Katrina response, you shouldn't restrict your media consumption to the top 10 newspapers. There's a whole world of other media out there. A quick search of Google News uncovers more than 450 stories from various news organizations on the subject of "Katrina lessons learned."
The Partnership's report also set out to assess the focus on waste and fraud in Katrina reporting, assuming from "anecdotal evidence" that such stories would have dominated the coverage. But that turned out not to be the case. In fact, the study found, only a small portion of articles focused on these issues.
Still, the report noted, articles about FEMA's role were twice as likely as other stories to focus on abusive practices. "The correlation between stories about FEMA and stories about waste and fraud quite likely fed the highly negative perception of the federal response," the study concluded.
Here's what else could have fed that perception: the fact that these stories were true. In June, Government Accountability Office investigators reported that improper and potentially fraudulent Katrina-related payments totaled between $600 million and $1.4 billion. Yes, many of the stories about GAO's report made sure to include juicy details about where the money went, noting that FEMA-distributed debit cards were used to pay for a divorce, season football tickets, a tropical vacation, adult videos, massage parlor sessions and a sex change operation.
But it's not as though the media overdosed on these kinds of stories. As the Partnership's report noted, more than 90 percent of articles that mentioned FEMA in the year after Katrina were silent on the subject of waste and fraud. If anything, a case could be made that there wasn't enough media attention focused on the issue of FEMA-related abuse, especially in the early days and weeks after the disaster, when sensitivity to victims was highest.
Now, though, with Katrina-related federal spending north of $120 billion and growing, there certainly needs to be plenty of coverage of the potential for waste and abuse and what FEMA and other agencies are doing to prevent it. Are media organizations up to the challenge of undertaking such reporting in a responsible, thorough fashion? Maybe not. But if there was ever a time when reporters needed to hold the government's feet to the fire, this is it.