Standing in the Way Of a Good Story

The National Guard has barred journalists from the convention center, where survivors were staying.
The National Guard has barred journalists from the convention center, where survivors were staying. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005

When NBC anchor Brian Williams and his crew were trying to take pictures of a National Guard unit securing a Brooks Brothers shop in downtown New Orleans, a sergeant blocked the footage by ordering them to the other side of Canal Street.

"I have searched my mind for some justification for why I can't be reporting in a calm and heavily defended American city and cannot find one," Williams said yesterday. "I don't like being told when I can and cannot walk on the streets and take pictures."

But he grumbled and told his crew to stop shooting Wednesday, Williams said, because "authority in New Orleans is as good as the last person to make the rule. I didn't have time to take it up the chain."

As rescue and recovery efforts continue in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, reporters and press analysts are growing increasingly critical of restrictions on media access. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, under heavy journalistic fire for its slow response to the disaster, has sparked new criticism by asking news organizations not to take pictures of bodies being recovered in Louisiana and Mississippi.

FEMA spokesman Mark Pfeifle said yesterday that the agency "has asked that those images not be shown," but that this is only a request. "Our main desire is to avoid unfortunate situations where a family member waiting for news of a loved one would find out about their passing from a newspaper or watching television," he said.

Some Louisiana officials, whether taking their cue from FEMA or not, are attempting to make the policy mandatory. Washington Post reporter Timothy Dwyer said he heard a sergeant from a state agency telling a camera crew allowed on a boat in a flooded area near downtown New Orleans: "If we catch you photographing one body, we're going to bring you back in and throw you off the boat."

The irony, Dwyer said, was that two bodies -- one in a black bag, the other covered by a blue quilt -- were visible on the off-ramp of Interstate 10 that the boats were using as a staging area.

Television networks have continued to show some bodies, as they have since the hurricane struck, but often covered or in body bags, so identification is not an issue.

There have been other moments of tension. At a fire near the French Quarter, Williams noted in a posting on NBC's Web site, a police officer from out of town "raised the muzzle of her weapon and aimed it at members of the media . . . obvious members of the media . . . armed only with notepads." He also noted that the National Guard is barring journalists from the city's convention center and Superdome, the very facilities that evacuees were barred from leaving last week.

"I saw many fingers on triggers," Williams said yesterday, producing such a sense of being in a foreign land that he repeatedly caught himself saying, "When I get back to the States."

Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said that while journalists should not interfere with rescue work, "at a time like this, the more opportunity the news media has to tell the story the better. People are hungry for information that helps them know as independently as possible what's going on."

Alex Jones, who runs the Shorenstein media center at Harvard, said that while news outlets should not show the deceased until relatives are notified, reports of limited access are "very disturbing":

"There's a reasonable belief that part of the wish to restrict access is rooted in image and public relations. The history of this administration has been very intensely to control the information and control the message. They did that in Iraq and during the Afghanistan war."

The Pentagon had barred photographs of flag-draped caskets returning from Iraq, but after releasing some under Freedom of Information Act requests, agreed last month to quickly release more in settling a lawsuit by University of Delaware professor and former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter.

"You cannot report on the disaster and give the public a realistic idea of how horrible it is if you don't see that there are bodies as well," Rebecca Daugherty of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press told Editor & Publisher.

Pfeifle said FEMA has barred reporters and photographers from some rescue and patrol boats, but on a case-by-case basis. "We have had to make decisions that we don't take press along because it takes up room that could be occupied by disaster workers or someone being rescued," he said.

State and local authorities have often blocked journalists from entering shelters, although interviews with evacuees often take place outside them. Pfeifle defended the approach on privacy grounds, saying, "This is their home."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company