There are certain events in American history that conjure up memories of being glued to the television for days on end, watching helplessly as fellow citizens endured unimaginable hardship. In many of these instances, the media served as a window into the chaos, providing private citizens with a glimpse into the crisis. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, the media not only played the role of the messenger to the rest of the world, but in some cases they were linked to rescue efforts and helping victims communicate with family members outside the ordeal. The media was also unfortunately linked to inaccurate reporting and exaggeration.
A major part of the issue involving the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina was that the reporters were there in the thick of the storm as events were beginning to unfold. Reporters and other members of the media then became directly involved in the events rather than just objective observers. The devastation was so massive that it was near impossible for members of the media to remain outside it. In many cases, the media became linked to rescue efforts when members of the media located victims who had been stranded and tried to coordinate rescue efforts with the authorities as well as reunite loved ones who had been separated by the storm.
In 2006, both The Sun Herald of Biloxi, Mississippi and the Times-Picayune of New Orleans, Louisiana were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their breaking news reporting during the storm and in the immediate aftermath. With the papers presses out of order due to flooding, many of the reporters and other staff for the Times-Picayune declined to evacuate and opted instead to ride out the storm in the building where the newspaper was produced. Since the presses were down, the staff opted to instead produce an electronic version of the paper which has been credited with both leading authorities to stranded victims who were then rescued and also reuniting family members who had lost one another in the storm. In the aftermath of the storm, the Times-Picayune was also quite candid in their feelings about the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)’s handling of the catastrophe. The newspaper printed an open letter to the sitting President, George W. Bush in the September 4, 2005 issue which criticized the way in which the disaster was handled and called for the dismissal of FEMA chief Michael D. Brown. The newspaper continued to editorialize the way that FEMA handled the disaster for months after the fact.
The media also played a large role in sensationalizing the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. There were false reports of looting, violence and rape and the death toll was greatly exaggerated. To the outside observer, it appeared that many news outlets were exploiting the tragedy in order to get ratings or sell newspapers.
When the U.S. Military took control over the city of New Orleans, restrictions were placed on the media prohibiting them from having access to the relief effort. News media outlet, CNN filed a lawsuit and was granted a temporary restraining order against the federal ban which allowed them access to the area.