Tuesday, June 22, 2010

DISASTER! Brought to you by Digital Media

Anybody who was exiled to another part of the country after Katrina will tell you how hungry they were for information. We were glued to our TVs, just as we had been earlier for 9/11. At the time, television was still the main source. But the Katrina refugees will also tell you how inaccurate and limited TV coverage was. During the most dynamic days of the Katrina crisis, CNN, for example, showed the same footage of water overtaking the exact same levee hour after hour. This time, during the Gulf Oil spill, digital media has come of age, and interestingly enough, we seem to be far better informed than we were five years ago.

So, why then does it seem we are having difficulty getting the full story about this calamity? It is probably because digital media allows anybody and everybody to weigh in on anything and everything. So, as the media consumer, you have to decide who to pay attention to. If you pay attention to syndicated columnist Froma Harrop,you might see Louisiana as inept and unable to handle its own business. In a recent column, Harrop wrote:
“The federal government should take over Louisiana…But whatever the cause, every calamity that befalls Louisiana is made worse by its corrupt civic culture. A protectorate could provide the structure of governance its people need.”
A protectorate? Gosh Froma, should we put a Federal protectorate in place in every city that has civic corruption? How about New York’s legendary police department? Oh, and did you read a total of 52 human beings were shot in the city of Chicago last weekend? And Detroit…well, don’t get me started…they need a Big Brother, too, wouldn’t you say?

Wait – it gets worse:
“Much of southern Louisiana is under sea level and periodically floods. No sane person would build in these low-lying areas were it not for the federal taxpayer, who subsidizes flood coverage where private insurers would never tread.”
Harrop, who is stationed in New York, has most likely never seen Louisiana, and has no concept of the culture and determination of its people. The same thing happened to Louisiana during Katrina, when legislators and talking heads discussed the folly of rebuilding New Orleans. Here in Louisiana, we just shake our heads and ignore them. So, Froma, you’ve been placed on “ignore.”

As if uninformed media types were not problematic enough, the voices are now rising up in Washington, as well. Consider Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK, below-right), who can’t figure out why Louisiana has not spent all of its recovery money from Katrina yet. Said Coburn,
“…serious questions need to be asked about whether this money was appropriately designated as emergency funding."
Coburn, and others in Washington who have not really experienced or seen the devastation in Louisiana, somehow feel that in five years a state’s entire infrastructure can be rebuilt. He evidently did not believe the experts who forcasted it would take at least a full decade to restore Louisiana. Add to that a fully incompetent Mayor in New Orleans (Ray Nagin) and a governor who was in way over her head when Katrina hit, and you’ve got $3 billion left unspent in Federal dollars. Tom, come see us in Louisiana and we will fill you in on how this stuff works. Until then, reserve comment please.

Between massive media and uninformed elected officials, Louisiana is getting an undeserved bad rap. The most extreme statements and stories are the ones that make headlines. Take Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi(below,left), our next door neighbor, who complained this way:
“ The biggest negative impact for us has been the news coverage. There has been no distinction between Grand Isle and Venice and the places in Louisiana that we feel so terrible for that have had oil washing up on 'em.”
It is old school reasoning at its worst. It bases itself on this maxim: Keep us out of the headlines and we’ll handle our own business. Barbour, 63, mostly allocates his time these days to promoting anti-obesity campaigns with Michelle Obama, and supporting other Southern state governors who like to celebrate Confederate History Month.”

Barbour rose to the occasion during Katrina, but his short memory apparently keeps him from recognizing that millions of Federal dollars may not have reached Mississippi, had it not been for competent media coverage of Mississippi, where 231 people died during and after the storm and thousands were rendered homeless. Louisiana was the focus at the time. Media broadened the view to include Mississippi.

Interestingly enough, the public seems quite tuned into the media right now. PEW research conducted polls that indicated, “Fully 67% say they have a lot (20%) or some trust (47%) in information on the oil leak coming from news organizations. That compares with 51% who have at least some trust in information from the federal government and 39% in information from BP.” (Ahem…are you listening Haley and Tom??)

The trust level among the public has much to do with the emergence of digital media. If you want to see how effective new media is in covering this disaster, take a look at the Washington Post’s Time & Space tool.

After you have spent some time there, check out “Information is Beautiful,” in which the spill is put in perspective. It is here you will learn things such as the fact that the spill encompasses an area that is bigger than the entire country of Jamaica.

For an interactive map that allows you to see the various effects of the spill, check out the Louisiana Bucket Brigade's topically divided tool. Here you can see focused impact graphics. For example, if you would like to see the exact areas where residents’ livelihoods are threatened, you can zoom in on just that. Or, perhaps you would like to see just the affected areas where oil has been seen on shore so far. Further, you can zero in on the areas where birds or marine wildlife are threatened.

These are just a few examples, but the result is this: Traditional media is working hard to convey information to you about the spill. But digital media is allowing you to truly learn about it through interactive visual representations. So, what would you rather? Pundits or pictures? Politicians with misguided agendas, or graphics that you control in your quest to understand the biggest environmental disaster in our history? What the talking heads (syndicated or elected) fail to recognize is that we citizens now have resources we did not have in the past. We can click and drag and link to our heart’s content. And sometimes we can even find the factual errors in columns like…say…Froma Harrop’s. (Froma, for the record, Katrina’s devastation was mostly caused by ill-conceived levees that were poorly constructed. So to call it an “act of nature” is incorrect. Oh, and about Texas being able to “move beyond its dependence on oil?” Where do you think the money came from for Texas to industrially diversify? BIG OIL!)

The moral of this story is clear: Traditional media is doing a respectable job of reporting and chronicling this spill. But even print media's greatest proponents know it is almost impossible to compete with technology that allows us to watch the disaster unfold -- on our cell phones. It is history in the making, just as Vietnam was notably the first televised war. Digital media is making it possible for you to see it in real time with your own eyes, and to monitor its progression. We need this confluence of information. Now, get going…you’ve got a lot of surfing to do.

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