Sunday, January 31, 2010

Media Failed in Covering Haiti

There were other anomalies and inadequacies in the reporting from Haiti. The US military was prominent in news reports: footage of heavily armed soldiers distributing bottles of water, of airdrops of food, and of US helicopters landing in front of the ruined presidential palace, was widely used to accompany reports on the humanitarian response. These efforts may have been laudable, but they paled in comparison to those of the United Nations and charities on the ground in Haiti. The UN’s World Food Programme said it had distributed three million meals to 200,000 people by late this week, and estimated that a further 100,000 people had been fed by charities. There were plans to scale this up to reach two million people, with four key distribution sites identified. By contrast, the US Southern Command reportedly made two air drops during the week of some 17,000 meals each.

Of course, some of the most prominent stories in the days since the quake have been good news stories: those remarkable images of people being pulled alive from the rubble by international search and rescue teams. Dozens of teams from all around the world helped rescue over 120 people. Yet even this creates a misleading impression. As anyone who has worked in a crisis zone knows (I spent two years in Angola, working on emergency relief programmes), the most important “rapid response” always comes from the people themselves. Early footage after the quake showed ordinary Haitians desperately sifting through rubble, searching for, and no doubt rescuing, family and neighbours—their successes, though, remained uncounted and largely unreported.

The media is a vital part of the response to any crisis such as this, and there has been much outstanding reporting coming out of Haiti; Twitter, meanwhile, has proved valuable for getting some sense of the voice of ordinary Haitians. But too often, reporters and their editors have led with glib headlines and poorly sourced information. The courage of those on the ground deserves more.

Read it all here.

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