Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti - First the tragedy - then the media

It's been awhile since I did much more than scan the headlines. But of course, I've been watching the coverage of the earthquake in Haiti and the aftermath, like most people I know. Tonight the US and Canadian TV networks are giving over the airwaves to televised benefits. And we've all felt the wall-to-wall coverage that the quake has received.

While much of the media coverage has been exceptional - especially the first-hand accounts from reporters who were first on the scene, the coverage also raises questions about what gets coverage and when. What's happening in the rest of the world?

Today, I came across this article by Rebecca Solnit on with the provocative headline In Haiti, Words Can Kill. It explores some of the issues I was thinking about - especially the response of the big US television networks. And you will want to look at another post by Solnit, called "When the Media is the Disaster," for more on the subject.

They are provocative pieces. Talking about the way the event has been covered doesn't do anything to diminish the scope of the tragedy that has unfolded in Haiti, nor does it cast aspersions on the people who are working so hard to help with the relief efforts. But it is worth considering the way that popular culture influences the news judgement of the media and how that affects the victims of the natural disaster.

Here's a sample:
Other than the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Los Angeles Times, this was “the biggest U.S. television news deployment to an international crisis since the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami” -- at a cost that can only have been obscene.

In the process, as happens on our obsessionally eyeball-gluing, single-event, 24/7 media planet, “world news” essentially became Haiti with the usual logos, tags, and drum rolls (“Earthquake in Haiti”). The three networks even briefly expanded the length of their half-hour news shows to an all-Haiti-all-the-time hour, with just bare minutes leftover for the rest of the planet. In a sense, as the earthquake had blotted out Haiti, so the news coverage blotted out everything else with an almost religious fervor and the language to match.

In place of the world came endless stories of a tiny number of riveting rescues from the rubble (“miracles”) by international rescue teams -- less than 150 saved when possibly tens of thousands of buried Haitians would not be dug out and conceivably up to 200,000 had died. Along with this went the usual self-congratulatory reporting about American generosity and the importance of American troops (they secured the airport!) in a situation in which aid was visibly not getting through, in which people were not being saved.

And of course, with the drama of people pulled from the rubble went another kind of drama: impending violence -- even though the real story, as a number of reporters couldn’t help but notice, was the remarkable patience and altruistic willingness of Haitians to support each other,help each other, and organize each other in a situation where there was almost nothing to share. It might, in fact, have been their finest hour, but amid the growing headlines about possible “violence” and “looting,” that would have been hard to tell.

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