A Sense of Outrage

Running through the coverage of Katrina, like an electric current, was outrage. It is an emotion that stands out in television coverage because it is rare. Most reporters shy away from letting their emotions show.

Running through the coverage of Katrina, like an electric current, was outrage. It is an emotion that stands out in television coverage because it is rare. Most reporters shy away from letting their emotions show.

Katrina was different because the TV Correspondents, in many instances, beat the first responders, the emergency services. It meant the reporters had first-hand knowledge. They had seen what the authorities had not. It was the disconnect between what we could see and what we were being told that led to a tone of outrage. It was not the emotion of one network but the common mood among those covering it.

We arrived three or four days after Katrina struck. As we left Houston we bought a small boat and outboard motor. We hitched it to the back of our vehicle. Soon after we entered the city we drove along Rampart Street which was clear of water. We decided to launch the boat into the streets to the north where the water was deep. As soon as the residents saw the boat they presumed we were rescue workers and began giving us news. One woman told us of a house nearby where a mother had died and there were five children in the house.

We went with her and found the mother dead on her bed, an oxygen inhaler in her mouth. The heat was stifling and the neighbour insisted the children could not stay there. It is never easy suddenly entering people's lives and taking decisions. We agreed to take the children to a flyover where military helicopters were flying out those who needed rescuing. We were there to help but also to film, and the family said nothing as the camera entered their home.

The family traveled in the boat and I pulled it. The water was just over waist-high. As we left the house I did a piece to camera off the top of my head. I said, “It seems incredible to me that we are the only boat in the neighbourhood ...” There was an immediate note of outrage. It was not planned. It just felt right. It was difficult to understand that we were the only rescue team in an area with so many needs.

We transferred the children to the vehicle and then tried to find a way to one of the flyovers where the US military were rescuing people by helicopters. At one point the water suddenly got much deeper. We now had a family on board and Hedley Trigge, the cameraman, decided to wade in front of the 4 x 4. We were frightened that manhole covers might have been swept away or that the vehicle could hit an obstacle under the water. At one point the water was high on the engine as we came close to one of the ramps leading to the flyover.

The children sat quietly. They said almost nothing and trusted us as strangers. On the flyover there was a lot of disorganisation. I found an officer from the National Guard and told him we had rescued a family. “Just leave them over there,” he said, pointing to the side of the road without any shelter from the sun. I asked what would happen to them. “Don’t worry. We'll ship em out.” I wanted to know where they were going but other soldiers were shouting at us to move the vehicle. We did not film this. Our responsibility for this family made us forget the camera. We helped them to the side of the road and I told them to stay together and then we left. We took some shots from a distance.

Later we launched the boat again into a neighbourhood where the water was much deeper. It was eerily quiet like gliding along a canal. At times it was strangely beautiful. Nearly all the houses were deserted. Then we noticed a movement at a roof window. There were two men inside. Underneath them, at the front of the house, was the badly decomposed body of a woman half in and half out of the water. The men told us it was their mother. She had been there for five days.

These were just some of the stories of the city. We all felt a sense of outrage, that this should not be happening. Others felt that same emotion when they saw bodies that lay uncollected day after day. Outrage should be used sparingly and should never slide into anger. Outrage is at its most effective when it is based on compassion; the sense that one is speaking out on behalf of ordinary people.

There were some reporters who showed tears on screen. I am not comfortable with that. Not because good reporters are not sometimes overwhelmed by what they see. It is that tears make the correspondent the eye of the story rather than the people who are actually suffering.

The tone of the reporting of Katrina stood out. A moment when correspondents had the confidence to express outrage at what they saw happening around them.