TV coverage of Katrina impressive, yet inconsistent

Congratulations to the men and women of American television news. Throughout the disaster in and around New Orleans, both network and cable reporters provided Americans with the most complete combination of compelling stories and images from Hurricane Katrina’s impact and aftermath. As with the days following the Sept. 11 attacks, the news media answered the public’s demand for in-depth and intelligent reporting.

So impressive was last week’s coverage that NBC Nightly News sustained an additional 2.5 million viewers throughout the week – a 30 percent jump in viewership in just a matter of days, according to The New York Times. NBC’s achievement was so momentous, the Times called Brian Williams’ lead role in the network’s coverage a “career-maker.”

But let’s not fool ourselves.

Just because the television news industry outperformed the lowest expectations for quality reporting during the Katrina disaster, their recent performance does not mean American television news will continue to provide such commendable coverage during news cycles of lesser importance. When the water recedes in New Orleans, the quality of television news coverage we’ve seen in recent days is sure to go with it.

Need I remind you about CNN’s special report only a week before the Katrina disaster on people who are addicted to tanning salons? Or what about the Fox News report from June that said terrorists had the potential to poison food in school lunchrooms across the country? Without a doubt, the upcoming weeks will be just like the weeks following Sept. 11, when television news stations returned to broadcasting the flimsy, tabloid-style stories that overwhelm television airwaves when a major storm or terrorist attack is not ravaging a major American city.

With new angles on the New Orleans disaster becoming increasingly scarce, television news directors should use the downtime after this harrowing news cycle to reflect on the success they’ve had with an event abounding with “hard news.”

The ratings increases at NBC and other news organizations of its kind have rivaled only those from September 2001. Is this a sign that Americans are paying more attention to real news stories of incredible consequence, as opposed to the celebrity stories of little consequence which too frequently find their way into American newscasts?

Perhaps if news directors reflect on the recent ratings increase they will find Americans are not always craving the soft, entertainment and investigation-based stories they seem to report during times of national peace and stability. Instead they could well find that the most recent spikes in television news viewership indicate Americans desire a greater emphasis on stories that fit a more traditional definition of news, not “infotainment.”

I’m not saying tabloid news does not sell. Of course it does. The ratings boost Fox News experienced when they provided blanket coverage of Natalee Holloway’s mysterious disappearance in Aruba this spring was confirmation that such stories are still in high demand. Yet before reverting to the tabloid-dominated news cycle that has defined American television news, it’s time for the broadcast journalists to ask whether or not the entertainment-based news they routinely provide is in greater demand than the hard news that is often watered down.

Ratings during the Katrina disaster are an indicator of viewer interest; news directors should reexamine their content choices. Certainly the news community has again proven itself capable of covering heart-wrenching hard news with incredible confidence. Now it’s time to see them make a routine of such in-depth reporting.

Aaron KelloggThe Daily Free Press,Boston University.