Published January 16, 2006
GULFPORT, Miss. – Nicki Henderson has had plenty of reasons to be angry since Hurricane Katrina destroyed her Biloxi home, but it was a simple news item about dislocated dolphins that really made her blood boil.
Henderson lost her temper when she logged on to her computer and spotted this headline: "New Orleans Dolphins Find New Home." She knew the dolphins actually came from a hurricane-ravaged marine park in Gulfport, not New Orleans.
The headline writer's error reinforced her belief — shared by many on Mississippi's Gulf Coast — that New Orleans has gotten a disproportionate share of the news coverage and the nation's attention in the aftermath of the storm, now more than four months gone.
There is a growing sense the catastrophic damage along Mississippi's 70-mile stretch of coastline is being treated as a mere footnote to the story in New Orleans, which was ravaged by flooding.
Worse, some say the lack attention could hamper the recovery of an area that had experienced an economic renaissance in the past decade thanks to billions of dollars of investment by major casino and hotel companies.
"I am terrified the American people are going to forget about us," Henderson said.
On Dec. 14, The Sun Herald in Gulfport devoted its entire front page to an editorial, headlined "Mississippi's Invisible Coast," that argued the region is fading into a "black hole of media obscurity." Next to the editorial was a graphic tallying Katrina's toll on the region: $125 billion in estimated damage, 236 dead, 65,380 houses destroyed.
The piece ended with a plea to the national media to "tell our story."
"The depth of the suffering and the height of the courage of south Mississippians is an incredible story that the American people must know. But, in the shadows of the New Orleans story, the Mississippi Coast has become invisible and forgotten to most Americans," the editorial read.
Sun Herald publisher Ricky Mathews said more balanced coverage would give Mississippi's residents a sorely needed morale boost. "They need to know they haven't been forgotten," Mathews said.
Mississippi residents are not the only ones feeling overshadowed by New Orleans. Larry Hooper, 63, has been living on a campground since Katrina destroyed his home in Empire, La., about 60 miles from New Orleans.
"Our town was wiped off the map," he said. "We feel as left out as the people in Mississippi and Alabama because of all the New Orleans reporting."
Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of the American Journalism Review, said it is obvious New Orleans has gotten the overwhelming share of headlines.
"Part of it has to do with the mythical status that New Orleans has in this country," he said. "It did become the focal point of national attention. The unfortunate byproduct is that the story on the Mississippi Gulf Coast can be backburnered."
Mathews said he worries that a "national obsession" with New Orleans will cost Mississippi its fair share of federal aid, private investment and help from volunteers.
"The government can help us get our important infrastructure rebuilt, but it's the private investment that's going to tell the story long term," he added.
Congress has approved $29 billion for recovery and rebuilding on the Gulf Coast. Only time will tell how the money is divided, but news coverage "does have an impact on what Congress does," said Biloxi native Jack Nelson, former Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
"When it's off the screen of the media, it's off the screen of the federal government," said Nelson, who landed his first newspaper job at The Sun Herald.
Not everybody is clamoring for a brighter media spotlight, because bad news can be bad for business.
"I really think there's a downside to overexposure, if it's exposure that says things aren't working well," said Stephen Richer, executive director of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Yes, there has been less coverage here, but I think in the long term we may come out ahead, because there's been more focus on the constructive things we're doing."
Three casinos already have reopened in Biloxi and others have vowed to be back before Katrina's anniversary on Aug. 29. In 2004, the dozen casinos on the Mississippi coast generated $1.2 billion in gross revenue.