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9/1/2005
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Blogs From New Orleans

When a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina hits, bad information, rumor-mongering, and sloppy reporting only contribute to the confusion and suffering. Unfortunately, I'm not talking about bloggers or other alternative sources of news about the disaster zone. I'm talking about Fox News, CNN, and the rest of the "professionals" who still think they're reporting from downtown Baghdad. The blogs covering Katrina certainly aren't perfect, but they're currently the only source of information that's

When a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina hits, bad information, rumor-mongering, and sloppy reporting only contribute to the confusion and suffering. Unfortunately, I'm not talking about bloggers or other alternative sources of news about the disaster zone. I'm talking about Fox News, CNN, and the rest of the "professionals" who still think they're reporting from downtown Baghdad.

The blogs covering Katrina certainly aren't perfect, but they're currently the only source of information that's worth a moment of my time. I mention two later in this post; here they are up front, in case you just want to see for yourselves:

Metroblogging New Orleans The InterdictorAs many of you know from reading this week's Linux Pipeline newsletter, I'm a New Orleans native. I know the city well, and I have a lot of family and friends down there, presumably all safe.

This is the sort of disaster where evacuees, close to one million of them, and perhaps ten times as many intensely concerned friends, family members, and frequent visitors are desperate for any clue about the state of their home, their neighborhood, their family and friends who stayed behind.

Since the massive flooding in New Orleans began Tuesday, in the wake of two major levee breaches, these folks aren't just looking for news about the state of the city or even of an area within the city. They want to know, need to know, about the water level and other conditions in a given street or even a particular intersection. They need to know whether their homes are under 15 feet of water, five feet of water, or sitting bone-dry.

This is where the bloggers come in and the networks' "Baghdad Syndrome" does so much harm.

The networks are playing to a national audience, many of whom have limited time and attention to devote to Katrina (if they drive or buy food they'll change their minds in the near future, but that's another story). That's fair, and its reasonable. Like it or not, however, people who are desperate for the smallest bit of information that will make or break life as they know it are also watching.

Almost no one in Baghdad was watching U.S. network news during the invasion -- no parents searching for clues to the fate of their children, no homeowners unsure whether they now owned a home or a mildewing pile of bricks. No one was anxiously scanning the background of a live news report from a particular intersection, realizing the flood waters were at rooftop level, and giving up hope -- even though the report wasn't from that intersection at all but was actually halfway across town.

CNN, and the Big Four, and even some national print media are forgetting they're not in Baghdad. When they screw up these details, people hear their whole lives dissolve in the space of a few words.

So for the networks, this is a case of serving their audience by shutting up about certain things. If a reporter isn't positive he's at a certain intersection because the street signs are underwater, then shut up. If a network can't find a topo map of the city and a reporter assumes the city really is a big bowl that fills up with water 15 feet deep from end to end -- then shut up. If a reporter doesn't know the difference between the French Quarter, the Treme, the Faubourg Marigny , and Bywater, and assumes if one floods the others must be flooding, too -- quit assuming and shut up.

Where the networks have failed miserably, the bloggers have stepped up and filled the gap. Since yesterday, I've been closely following one group blog in particular: Metroblogging New Orleans, a frequently updated joint effort by ten or so locals. They're all current evacuees, as far as I can tell, but they know the city, and they are still in contact with people inside the city.

The Metrobloggers are correcting some of the networks' most stunning acts of stupidity: The French Quarter, in fact, is not under 10 to 12 feet of water and has, in fact, remained mostly free of flooding. You can also find here a resource that the research staffs of the world's biggest news networks apparently couldn't find on their own: a cross-section map of New Orleans. (Credited to the Washington Post -- kudos, guys.)

Spend a minute or two looking it over, note the parts of the city that are between one and five feet above sea level, and you'll realize: Most of the city's historic neighborhoods are high enough to survive the levee breaches with little or no flooding.

The Metrobloggers do other wild and crazy things like call CD's Saloon in the Quarter (A bar? Open? Now? It's a long story), where the regulars can confirm that they are not, in fact, sitting and drinking in neck-deep water. At about this time, however, CNN was showing video of a completely flooded French Quarter street -- except the street isn't in the French Quarter.

Another outstanding and I believe credible blog is based in New Orleans' Central Business District, on Camp St. I warn you: some of what this person has reported concerning looters and violent crime in the area is appalling and disturbing. He has also confirmed that reports or thousands of dead in the city, many lying in the open, are probably accurate.

You're watching the worst natural disaster in United States history unfold here, plain and simple. You will read these blogs, especially the latter, you may find yourself unwilling to believe what they're saying. I strongly suggest you adjust your expectations about what is and is not believable in this case, because you're going to see and hear much worse in the days to come.

These bloggers get what the network guys don't seem able to grasp: the details are everything in this story. People's homes, belongings, pets -- and, yes, friends and family -- are on the line. A reporter who can't bother to check a street name against a good map could end up convincing evacuees that they've lost everything when they haven't; or, in some awful cases, inspire false hope.

A misleading or misinformed blog post can do the same thing, of course, and there are probably scores, if not hundreds, of bloggers who are shoveling off the same pile as Fox, and CNN, and the other pros. But the bloggers aren't professionals; the standards are different, as are the expectations. Anyway, sniffing out credible bloggers isn't as hard as it might seem to someone unfamiliar with the medium; it is, to steal Potter Stewart's famous line, simply a matter of knowing it when you see it.

Bloggers were already rewriting the book on what it means to "do" journalism in this day and age, but in most cases, they were still working largely at the margins. Yet as more bloggers restore their Internet links, get back into the areas hit hardest by Katrina, and bring a local perspective to what they see, they could end up reshaping American journalism in some very fundamental ways.

That's just fine with me, as it is with everyone else who knows and loves that part of the world enough to expect better from some of the people being sent to cover it.

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