Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum has been under a stakeout of sorts since Hurricane Katrina evacuees arrived Sunday.
When a displaced Louisiana family emerges from the arena, television cameras and writers with notebooks pounce with questions about their old home, their new home, Michael Brown, whatever. Children playing patty-cake or a pickup basketball game become news-clip fodder.
But reporters are rarely allowed inside, except for a short guided tour given once a day to one writer and one photographer. The designated reporters then share their material with all media outlets.
"We’re very intent on keeping the coliseum calm and orderly because of the chaotic situation from which they came," Gov. Janet Napolitano said. "This is their home right now. They need privacy, they need quiet, they need the opportunity to focus on their well-being."
Red Cross officials have escorted overzealous reporters from the coliseum at least three times. But, for the most part, Valley media have accepted the tight controls.
If an evacuee doesn’t want to talk, few reporters press the issue. Among the media, there’s an unspoken agreement that the needs of Katrina’s victims come first, rather than the news.
"We haven’t pushed things," said Bob Sullivan, news director at KNXV-TV (Channel 15). "We’re not upset if we follow what they ask us to do and we don’t get the story."
As long as the coliseum remains the focus of relief efforts in Arizona, a delicate balancing act will un- fold daily among the media.
The survivors need time and privacy to recuperate, yet they also need the media’s help to find jobs, homes and loved ones.
"We are looking for Lloyd Coleman Jr.," said 16-year-old Angelique Dugas, who was evacuated from New Orleans. "That’s my uncle."
Meanwhile, the media want to hear from the evacuees. However, the cameras and notebooks can’t pry too deeply.
"Certainly, this has been a story where reporters have had to walk that line between telling the story properly and exploiting the tragedy, further victimizing the victims," Arizona State University journalism professor Stephen Doig said.
Aid workers must also weigh competing interests. They want to provide the evacuees a haven inside the coliseum, but they need the public to know about their relief efforts to ensure that cash donations keep coming.
"We’re trying to find a way to meet in the middle," Red Cross spokeswoman Jennifer Liewer said.
MEDIA ON A MISSION
The coverage of Hurricane Katrina will be discussed for years, as the catastrophe and the lack of help afterward prompted normally dispassionate reporters to take on the role of speaking for the voiceless.
Turn on the television, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper lambasts Sen. Mary Landrieu, DLa., for officials’ unseemly back-patting. Flip the channel, and Fox News’ Shepard Smith, confronted by an anchorman who wants him to regain some perspective, shouts, "This is perspective!"
"It’s been the ultimate in advocacy journalism," Sullivan said about the coverage at Channel 15. "Like I told my reporters, this is just as much about telling a story as it is to draw awareness and try to help. This isn’t just go out and be a (general assignment) reporter on this."
Sullivan noted his station has raised about $600,000 in disaster relief, and a personal appeal from a news anchor convinced Mesa Air Group to loan a plane so that exhausted Phoenix firefighters could be brought back from the disaster area.
"We need (the media’s) help," Liewer said, "as much as they need our help."
Still, there have been accusations of media mistakes.
Dugas and a relative were livid over how New Orleans’ black population was portrayed as violent looters. Also, they didn’t like a word often used to describe the evacuees.
"Why are they calling us ‘refugees?’ " asked Virginia Williams, 51. "We are Americans!"
The Tribune has decided to allow the term "refugee" sparingly in copy if a writer or editor encounters special circumstances, while avoiding the word in headlines and photo captions.
Also, some evacuees complained that television stations, when allowed inside Wednesday evening, violated their privacy by shooting footage of sleeping people.
"That’s not a good representation of who’s been here," Liewer said. "But that’s the nature of the business. We understand they’re trying to fill a need."