News Literacy in the Digital Age: Essay 4
One of Brian Thevenot's errors was that the main claim in his headline was only verified by one, biased source.
There is no formula to achieve journalistic truth. Yet, if a reporter reaches the standard of the “best obtainable version of the truth” after a holistic evaluation, their article can be deemed journalistically true (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 43). After a close examination of Brian Thevenot’s “Katrina’s body count could reach 10,000,” it is clear that the reporter did not responsibility report this story and it cannot be considered truthful. Not only does the reporter lack verified information about crucial details, his sources lack credibility, rendering much of their information unverified as well. Even more, the reporter carelessly includes various assertions, judgments and inferences further discrediting his reporting. Overall, Thevenot’s story is not credible because it is filled with unverified material, unreliable sources and unsubstantiated assertions.
Thevenot’s most potent error is that he did not verify many of the details that were crucial to his story. The first example of this is the guard’s claim that there “is another [girl] in the freezer, a 7-year- old with her throat cut." By glossing over this claim with no confirmation about the assertion, Thevenot does not reach the gold standard of the verification process: direct evidence. In his article titled “Myth-Making in New Orleans” in the American Journalism Review (AJR), Thevenot writes that if he had simply pushed to see the body in the freezer, he would have learned that it was not a true claim and his story would have been accurate. Instead, this exaggerated rumor — like many others regarding Hurricane Katrina — circulated in the public’s purview as “[s]tone-age storytelling got amplified by space-age technology,” Thevenot wrote in the AJR. One can find many more examples of reckless use of unverified facts in his story. Thevenot includes the claim that “between 30 and 40 bodies [were] in the Convention Center’s freezer,” that “the highest concentration of causalities … will come in the Lower 9th Ward” and that “22 bodies were found lashed together.” The reporter wrote these statements, along with many more, without any direct evidence to substantiate the claims. He didn’t dedicate himself to the first-hand reporting to complete the verification process, leaving the story’s crucial details unverified.
The reporter’s sources, while many are authoritative and information, also do not verify the story’s crucial claims because they are either not named or not independent. The article’s headline makes a grand assertion that the “body count could reach 1,000.” However, Thevenot only has one source stating this statistic, which in itself makes it an unsupported statement. Also, that one source — the mayor — is politically motivated to assert this number so he can draw more donations to his area. It is very irresponsible to center the article’s headline on a claim that is not proven by multiple, independent sources. In addition, Thevenot’s use of the Rhodes brothers does add informed eyewitnesses to his source list but the brothers do not verify their story about trying to save victims. Not only is their entire story irresponsibly stated as fact, the brothers even explicitly state that they cannot confirm the gang rape. Thevenot’s use of this source perpetuates the “mythical violence” of the hurricane, as he states in his AJR article. On top of all this, Thevenot utilizes unnamed sources when he write about claims he heard from “dozens of rescue workers,” “rescue teams,” “officials” and more. Without clear and descriptive attributions, Thevenot simply leaves more unanswered questions for the audience about where his information came from. Despite his ability to reach out to all the stakeholders, Thevenot’s sources still do not fully verify his claim, creating a story that is not credible.
Not only do his sources make unsubstantiated claims, Thevenot himself includes many assertions, inferences and judgments in his article. He asserts that “officials appeared to have no plan,” inserting his own judgment about the officials work. Without an attribution, the reader is left wondering about the evidence for this assertion. Thevenot also inferred that “some of the bodies already might be unrecognizable, and some may never be recovered.” He further showcases his own inference when stating “the bulk of bodies sat decomposing.” Although these sentences seem small and insignificant, their combination leaves Thevenot’s reporting questionable. Again, with no attribution to a source, Thevenot showcases sloppy reporting ripe with his own unverified claims.
Thevenot’s article is not credible because the information central to his story remains unverified as he does not commit to direct reporting, his sources do not fully corroborate their claims and his assertions allow him to insert his own inferences and judgments about the story. The truth and verification process that reporters must adhere to in order to achieve journalistic truth requires persistent and careful reporting. In times of chaos and tragedy, these journalistic tenants should be upheld even stronger, not dismissed for juicer yet less verified information. It is part of a journalist’s mission and credibility to answer the key questions and verify every answer along the way.
Thevenot's story was accompanied by a picture of corpses in a building.
An analysis of Brian Thevenot's "Katrina body count could reach 10,000" highlights his reporting errors that led the story to not be credible. It also signifies the importance of truth and verification in a time of chaos.
After his article was published, Thevenot wrote a "mea culpa" for the American Journalism Review that can be found here.