In the early hours after the devastating Haiti earthquake last week, there was precious little news of the situation on the ground. Many media reports focused instead on the difficulty Haitians in the U.S. were having getting news of their family members in Haiti, or on responses from diplomatic officials outside the country. Alexandra Fenwick blogging at The Columbia Journalism Review wrote Wednesday,
There is no shortage of articles about the disaster. But most of those stories quote bureaucrats, aid workers and worried family members removed from the scene. Very few include any eyewitness accounts of the destruction on the ground—for the simple reason that, until recently, there were only two full-time foreign correspondents in the country.
Jonah Engle, who spent three months this summer as a reporter in Port-au-Prince for the weekly Brooklyn-based Haitian Times, said that his departure in the fall left the Associated Press’s Jonathan M. Katz as the only foreign correspondent on the ground there.
Part of the mission of ethical journalism is to testify to the depth and breadth of human life. The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code compels reporters to “Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.” But physically placing enough reporters and spacing them out appropriately, doesn’t seem to be the best used tool toward fulfilling this mission.
Yet, just being there may be the first step to telling any story (let alone one of the “diversity and magnitude of the human experience.”)
Fenwick writes newspapers tried to replace on-the-ground news with other kinds of coverage,
Many, like The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times did the best they could with correspondents based in Mexico City, the Dominican Republic, and Florida.
Many outlets took the local angle, speaking to local Haitian-Americans anxious for news of their loved ones.
And, finally, others simply wrote about the frustration people felt at being unable to learn much information. Here is the Haitian Times, which until recently had Engle on the ground, with the honest headline “Earthquake Hits Haiti, Community Feels Powerless.”
Even within Haiti, news reports were initially limited. Gabriel Verret, an economic adviser to Haitian President Rene Garcia Preval told PBS Newshour blog, the Rundown, Tuesday night, “There is very little local news. Most of the local news stations are off the air. I heard two all afternoon or evening since the quake. One station continues to work normal and that is radio RFI (Radio France International). Every half hour it gives new reports.”
New media seems to have covered some of the gap. In another CJR post, Curtis Brainard writes ‘New’ media platforms were “critical to delivering early information about damage and relief efforts in the aftermath of a 7.0 earthquake that rocked the western side of Haiti shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday.”
A few examples also highlight collaboration between old media and new to bring news of Haiti’s situation to the rest of the world. Brainard points out the Los Angeles Times quickly published a list of twitter users believed to be tweeting from Haiti. CNN’s iReport desk also fielded news from citizen journalists at the scene.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how many reporters it takes to be able to provide an ideally wide swath of local news. But this tragedy has revealed that international mainstream media coverage in Haiti was certainly lacking. Whatever the threshold, a single foreign correspondent operating in Haiti doesn’t seem to meet it.