It’s fitting that we discussed Soledad O’Brien’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina in class on World Press Freedom Day (Tuesday, May 3, 2016). O’Brien’s coverage of the horrific events during and following Katrina proved to be one of the most refreshing aspects of the documentary. Her commitment to holding officials accountable and gaining justice for victims of the hurricane was incredibly remarkable, and for me, someone heavily involved in and interested in journalism, made her one of my favorite people in the documentary.
That’s why it was troubling to hear today about the halt her coverage put on her career. As the article above shows, rights of journalists are becoming increasingly restricted. While Soledad’s work was done over 10 years ago, the downward trend of rights for journalists has sadly continued. The article shows how surveillance of journalists and control of media has reached terrifying extremes, with many countries seeing declines in press freedom. The article also delves deeper into other issues journalists face, such as increased exposure to sexual violence.
Thinking particularly about O’Brien’s work, it’s upsetting that a responsible, upstanding journalist would be punished for the work she carried out. Speaking out against injustice and giving voices to true victims jeopardized her career trajectory. O’Brien still stands by her work today, being interviewed last year and speaking about how important her coverage of Katrina was to her.
“Personally it made me realize what the actual roots of what reporting was. I felt like we were really providing a service for the people of New Orleans, for the people in the rest of the country, for CNN globally. I felt like this is exactly what reporters are supposed to be. You’re supposed to be grilling people, pushing them, holding people accountable, connecting families that are lost,” O’Brien said. “It helped me realize that reporting can be all of those things. Did I help humanity, if even for a moment.”
O’Brien’s notions of journalism are something we should expect of all of our media correspondents. “When the Levees Broke” highlighted the role the media played in relaying the story, whether it be the noble work of demanding information from authorities or by spreading unconfirmed rumors. Media plays a crucial role in shaping the narrative surrounding events such as this and ultimately shaping the historical memory of them. Committed journalists like O’Brien are so critical to the national narrative and restricting their ability to do this important work is incredibly dangerous.