One of the most irritating things about the Haiti coverage on television is the reporters’ total lack of historical context. (See this brilliant piece from Dutch correspondent Linda Polman on how the aid workers are getting it all wrong.)
Here in São Paulo, I only see CNN and Brazilian news (I rarely watch Fox for obvious reasons) but it’s clear that most of the reporters know very little about Haiti or its recent history.
They’ve reported on the looting and scuffles in aid lines as though it were stunning news. They act as if Haiti had gone from Switzerland to its current apocalyptic state overnight.
First of all, the Haitian people are starving. They have waited patiently for food and water and they are desperate. It is only natural they are going to grab at scarce supplies.
Secondly, looting and unruly lines are hardly news in Port-au-Prince. The country has been through numerous disasters that required international aid organisations to intervene and help. Handing out aid was never a picnic. In a country with no institutions, no education system and no real police force, you can’t expect order.
Finally, don’t these reporters realise that most Haitians speak Creole? I saw one dolt on either Fox or CNN asking a guy in English if there were bodies inside a collapsed house.
When the guy, who obviously had no clue what was being said, nodded his head, the reporter announced to the camera that, yes, there were bodies inside the house. It was shockingly bad journalism and there’s no excuse for it. Interpreters are there and can be hired.
News organisations were quick to respond to the disaster and they deserve praise for that.
Their lack of context can be blamed at least in part on the evisceration of the media in recent years. Back in the 1990s the people who covered Haiti were Latin American correspondents. Most were experienced. Few spoke the language but because Haiti was such a big story they’d been there a few times before and understood it a bit better.
There are hardly any Latin American correspondents left nowadays. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen organisations that have closed offices in the region over the last few years. The LA Times, Time magazine, Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and NPR among them.
Disaster stories are all about quick response. You can’t pick and choose who knows the country and who speaks the language. But there’s no excuse for treating Port-au-Prince as if it was Miami.