Columbia Journalism Review
September 18, 2008
Hurricane Ike news blackout on dead bodies in Bolivar, Texas
And fear of Internet gossip should not prohibit responsible journalism. The ABC News affiliate in Houston carried a video of investigative reporter Wayne Dolcefino confronting Texas governor Rick Perry about temporary “no-fly” zones for TV helicopters over parts of the Bolivar peninsula and west Galveston, the hardest hit areas. Later in the video, Dolcefino tells the ABC anchors:
After Katrina, we were able to go to Waveland, Mississippi, and Gulfport, and Biloxi, and places that were devastated, where there were, sadly, bodies on the road. Now that’s a horrible thing to see and a horrible thing to show, but people who live there, who have friends there, who have relatives there, have a fundamental right to know that stuff. They have a fundamental right to know, not just from the words of a politician or public official, but from the news media, which are independent of government and have also the responsibility of trying to help the public evaluate response…
We couldn’t get crews back on Galveston last night and this morning until we complained on the air for about twenty hours. And it’s not because we want to sightsee, guys, it’s because we have the responsibility of telling people… I made it as clear to [Gov. Perry] off camera as I did on camera that this is not going to be tolerated. You know, we hear about disasters in other countries—what was it, Burma, Myanmar—where they won’t let people in to see and you know, this is the state of Texas; this America. And we’re not trying to interfere with rescue and search operations, nor did anyone suggest we would be.
When asked why he thought the government was obstructing access, Dolcefino did not mince words:
I don’t think they want us to see images that may remind people… of the images that we saw in New Orleans. I don’t think they want us to see the images that were seen in Waveland, Mississippi or Gulfport… I think that’s the reality; they do not want us to see yet, until they can control what we see and how we see it. And that is simply, at least in my career, unacceptable. Maybe a lot of reporters won’t say it, but I will. I think they do not want us to see images of potential fatalities that may be on land or on water.
Other reporters didn’t think access was much of a problem. The Houston Chronicle’s Matthew Tresaugue said he wasn’t sure why TV choppers were prohibited from flying last Sunday, but that there were, in fact, reporters in the air. On SEJ’s list-serv he noted that:
The Chronicle had a photographer over Bolivar on Sunday about the same time as the televised confrontation. I flew with a photographer from High Island to Galveston’s west end to Surfside Beach in a Cessna yesterday, and one of our columnists and a photographer got a closer view of the same area from a helicopter. … I think the difference is the television guys wanted to take their helicopters, and we hitched rides. On my flight, I was able to see what I needed and even double back to take second looks. I can’t complain.
At any rate, its’ hard to imagine that information about the government’s response to Hurricane Ike would not get out sooner or later, and access seems to have improved since the weekend. But authorities should realize that obstructing the media’s ability to report in disaster zones only makes the public more suspicious about the adequacy of their response.