Writing in USA Today, Reason Editor in Chief Matt Welch argues that media flubs in catastrophe coverage are largely self-inflicted. Excerpt:
The human impulse to make sense out of senseless horror can, when relayed by irresponsible journalists, have lethal consequences for victims of an unfolding catastrophe. Widespread news reports that Hurricane Katrina victims were opening gunfire on rescue helicopters and slitting children's throats in the Superdome slowed evacuation efforts by several crucial days. The stories, reported around the globe, were not true.
Any sudden cataclysm is bound to be shrouded in a factual fog; we can't ask reporters to have X-ray vision. But broadcast outlets especially make a difficult situation worse by trotting out an assembly line of "experts" to openly speculate based on litte or no information. […]
So are we doomed to spread politically inflected lies about every latest tragedy? Counter-intuitively, no. The same social media that enables untruths to travel halfway around the world spent much of Friday smacking down each new clumsy speculation at its source. Perhaps burned by the Loughner excesses, people from all political persuasions urged reportorial and political restraint.