Five weeks after Hurricane Katrina laid struck New Orleans, government officials have come to believe that exaggerations of mayhem by officials and rumors repeated uncritically in the news media helped slow the response to the disaster and tarnish the image of many of its victims, the Washington Post reports. Claims of widespread looting, gunfire directed at helicopters and rescuers, homicides, and rapes, including those of “babies” at the Louisiana Superdome, frequently turned out to be overblown, if not completely untrue.
“Rumor control was a beast for us,” said Maj. Ed Bush of the Louisiana National Guard. “People would hear something on the radio and come and say that people were getting raped in the bathroom or someone had been murdered. I would say, ‘Ma’am, where?’ I would tell them if there were bodies, my guys would find it. Everybody heard, nobody saw. Logic was out the window because the situation was illogical.” CNN reported repeatedly on Sept. 1 that evacuations at the Superdome were suspended because “someone fired a shot at a helicopter.” Louisiana National Guard officials say that no helicopters came under attack and that evacuations were never stopped because of gunfire. Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, commander of Joint Task Force Katrina, said reporters got bogged down trying to tell people how bad the situation was rather than “gathering facts and corroborating that information.” Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/US, said reporting was challenging because official sources — in particular police chief Eddie Compass — initially confirmed many of the things reported on the air. As more information has become available, Klein said, the network corrected the record and highlighted the danger of swirling rumors.