First Drafts, Final Drafts

One of the big challenges for information literacy is helping students understand where information comes from – and how to evaluate it. I’ve been collecting some news stories coming out of New Orleans and Mississippi because they illustrate the issue so well. Journalism is famously the first draft of history – and some of the edits are just coming in.

One of the first critiques came when the Public Editor of The New York Times chided the paper for neglecting stories that turned out to be fit to print. Then, early this week, the Times offered a good discussion of how rumors leaked into the news.

Yesterday’s Chicago Tribune has a column by Clarence Page that goes into some detail on what actually happened at that bridge in Gretna where rednecked white police allegedly turned black evacuees away – but Page, digging deeper, found Gretna was a city that was as overwhelmed as New Orleans; officials there were angered when New Orleans officials told residents to go to a location where they couldn’t be helped. Page ends by calling for an independent investigation into the inadequate response to the crisis.

And in a startling editorial just across the page – the Trib reveals that the president of Jefferson Parish, who sobbed on television about the woman who drowned in a nursing home after days of promises, got it wrong. The woman actually died four days earlier. It’s still a tragedy – but that stirring story of days of neglect wasn’t true. (It’s unclear whether the president of the parish knew that.)

On the other hand – the editorial also says categorically that the Corps of Engineers hadn’t shortchanged the levees. While it’s true they only made them ready to withstand a category 3 hurricane because that’s what Congress ordered, the NY Times reported yesterday that the levees actually couldn’t handle even a category 3 storm.

All of which illustrates how hard it is to get the details and the context right – particularly in a world in which news and rumor rub shoulders and we all expect a much quicker news cycle. It’s bad news for all of us that several large news organizations – including the Times – recently announced layoffs in the newsroom. If we won’t pay for good news coverage, journalism will be the first, imperfect draft of history – and the final version (according to another aphorsism) will be written by the winners.