When I was reporting years ago in Nicaragua and traveling with a squad of Sandinista soldiers, a weary woman in a village in the middle of a battle zone told me that I had “the face of a priest.” That didn’t necessarily mean that she liked me. After years of war, neglect and poverty, she had grown skeptical of newcomers, including priests coming to relay her impoverished reality to a higher power.
I told her I was a reporter, but that didn’t erase the look of aching resignation on her face. History, no doubt, constantly reaffirmed her suspicions—here was another liberal anthropologist, this one posing as a member of the media, who had hacked through the jungle to study her. Like another sanctimonious ghost, another false promise, he’d be gone in a few days.
It wasn’t hard to see that same resignation in the media moments emerging from this year’s Haitian nightmare. The parallels to Katrina and New Orleans are not to be ignored: A natural disaster hits a region that—because it has been designed by slavery and racism—is filled with people acutely aware of their place in the caste system.
And like Katrina and New Orleans, the media faced a crucial debate: how to convey the symptomatic, grisly, turmoil…and how to hover above it and give the long, contextual (and, yes, condemning) view of Haiti’s wretched evolution. How to connect the breaking news to the land grabs, exploitation and dictatorships that the United States had supported for decades. Haiti was vulnerable long before the earthquake struck, and its history is almost a perfect microcosm of the lingering ruin left in the wake of super-powers hell bent on cornering the market on…you name it…sugar, spices, cotton and human beings. It was almost a pet phrase in the media for years and years—“poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.”
A nonscientific view of the Texas media’s coverage of Haiti suggests plenty of symptomatic “first responder” coverage—the front-page images of bodies and snaking lines for food and water. And the usual scrambles to find “local” angles (Texans who perished in Haiti, Texans tied to the adoption of Haitian children, Texans doing relief work—often through church groups). The challenge, of course, was simply being able to hold a mirror to the immediate reality.
“I give reporters a pass,” says John Burnett, the veteran Texas-based correspondent for National Public Radio, who just returned from Haiti. “Logistically, just getting around the shattered capital, finding officials who knew something, and holding one’s emotions in check were a challenge every day.
“As in New Orleans after Katrina, it was the journalists that alerted the world that this is a bad one. Send help. And when the aid agencies and the U.S. government assured us that help was on the way, the journalists showed that it might be on the way, but it wasn’t getting to the squalid tent camps where it was desperately needed. The aid distribution was paralyzed by disorganization, violent crowds, lack of security and inadequate supplies. So I guess I feel like we did our job.”
The images on TV were especially ceaseless and grinding, and millions of Americans sent money to help. But could the media have done more to affix blame for the conditions in pre-earthquake Haiti?
“What’s largely missing…has been the analysis,” says veteran Texas journalist and author R.A. “Jake” Dyer, who has reported extensively in Haiti.
“The public has a voracious appetite for constant Web updates, and so the pressure on reporters to produce fresh copy has been enormous. Making the call to remove a reporter from the daily action … and instead allow that reporter to spend several days or a week on analysis—that’s a very difficult call for an editor.”
Now the story has moved on. In Houston, the erudite Gabrielle Cosgriff—who has written many crusading editorials in the Houston Chronicle—had a stinging indictment. She perused her regular daily newspapers on the first Friday in February—and found that they had confined almost all their coverage to the American missionaries accused of child trafficking.
“So, apart from the American connection,” she wrote to me, “we’re done with Haiti, knowing little more than that a terrible natural disaster occurred, God knows how many people died, and a poor country is now even poorer.”