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Oct 04 2005

When rumors kill

In a series of previous posts (see here and here), I suggested that we should all be very skeptical of news reports that immediately follow any major news event because those early versions can turn out to be very wrong on the facts but succeed in leaving a highly misleading imprint on the minds of people.

In particular, I pointed out that governments and official sources often lie to reporters so that they can initially get favorable reactions and support for their actions, knowing that people tend to be reluctant to change their views later, even if the facts change. I gave as examples of such lies Reagan’s comments on the aftermath of the shooting of the Iranian Airbus airliner, Clinton’s justification for the bombing of the Sudanese pharmaceutical factory, and the British authorities’ initial version of the killing of the innocent Brazilian in the wake of the London bombings in July. And of course, we have the whole series of lies about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, which turns out to be one of the biggest and most reprehensible causes of the invasion of Iraq and the consequent debacle that is currently occurring in that country.

So we should be highly skeptical when high level government officials are the main or only sources of information on a big story. My belief is that low-level officials are much more likely to tell the truth for several reasons, all of which are precisely because they are low-level: (a) they know that they can easily get into trouble for lying unless they have powerful patrons to protect them, and even then they know they can be sacrificed for the sake of political expediency; (b) they are not aware of the big picture purposes the lie is designed to serve; (c) they have not, or do not wish to, become expert at the kinds of lying that is required to rise in the ranks to become a high level official.

But there is another situation when we should be highly skeptical about initial news reports and that is when those reports feed into our existing stereotypes about people and behavior. And nowhere is this kind of danger better exemplified than what happened to the people of New Orleans in the wake of hurricane Katrina.

I watched in horror as, within the space of just one or two days after the hurricane struck, the displaced people of that city became transformed from desperate victims deserving of immediate help, to the ranks of the undeserving, with descriptions of them ranging from incompetent and selfish helpless whiners and complainers, to thugs and looters and rapists and murderers descending into ‘animalistic’ behavior. As a result, the emphasis seemed to shift from helping them to suppressing and controlling them.

As reports begin to emerge (and I will write about them later), it is clear that the kinds of criminality that received such huge coverage were vastly overblown. What was so harmful about this was that this hugely negative portrayal resulted in delays in rescue operations that undoubtedly led to unnecessary and avoidable deaths and misery.

Almost a month after the hurricane, the New York Times offered this sober reappraisal:

After the storm came the siege. In the days after Hurricane Katrina, terror from crimes seen and unseen, real and rumored, gripped New Orleans. The fears changed troop deployments, delayed medical evacuations, drove police officers to quit, grounded helicopters. Edwin P. Compass III, the police superintendent, said that tourists – the core of the city’s economy – were being robbed and raped on streets that had slid into anarchy.

The mass misery in the city’s two unlit and uncooled primary shelters, the convention center and the Superdome, was compounded, officials said, by gangs that were raping women and children.

A month later, a review of the available evidence now shows that some, though not all, of the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations, the product of chaotic circumstances that included no reliable communications, and perhaps the residue of the longstanding raw relations between some police officers and members of the public.

The question is why these stories took hold so quickly and were seemingly believed and propagated by people in positions of authority even when they had no evidence that they were true. How could it be that the New Orleans superintendent of police (who resigned without explanation last week) could have himself believed those erroneous reports and how could it be that the Mayor could describe the people of the city as ‘animalistic’? These statements were passed on by reporters, and coupled with all the other rumors of vile behavior passed on as fact, became the reality for people all over the world. The nation and the world seemed to find it easy to believe them even though what they were describing was shocking.

Why was this? As I will argue in subsequent postings, what we tend to believe and not believe in the aftermath of such events is largely determined by our prior conceptions of people and our prejudices, and New Orleans opened a window into what we believe poor (and people of color) are like, and the picture is not pretty.

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