Covering a Crisis

Interesting debate on coverage of Haiti and the aid operation. I was rather unimpressed by this view, from The New Republic…

…in Haiti, the dozens of redundant dispatches are stressing an already perilously fragile situation, as all the journalists scrambling to get into the country chew up valuable capacity and resources. Surely there’s a better way.

The better way, Noam Scheiber goes on to say, is to pool coverage – for one team to be allowed access and for coverage to be spread through other media organisations, a common practice during dull Royal visits, say, or in situations where it might be too dangerous to have multiple teams roaming around.

When it comes to openness and access, like most journalists I’m usually in favour of more coverage not less. There’s a nice rebuttal here too about how Haitians have welcomed journalists who have come to tell their stories. In general, few things are improved by reduced coverage. That was until I read Andy Kershaw’s powerful critique of media stereotyping and the failings of the aid response. After describing the BBC’s Matt Frei as an “incongruously ample figure around Port-au-Prince”, he goes on to pour scorn upon the alternate realities of Frei’s words compared with the pictures.

Over the weekend we saw him anticipating an outbreak of unrest, standing before a crowd of thousands of hungry, humiliated Haitians as they waited, patiently and quietly, to be given rations by UN soldiers. Their dignity and stoicism seemed to escape Frei who was, in any case, looking away from them while ranting about the inevitability of looming bloodshed – conspicuously unlikely, judging from the evidence of his own report. (When he is not almost tumescent about violence, Frei speculates and pontificates pompously to camera, or booms at earthquake victims in French. Most Haitians don’t speak French. They speak Creole).

Next in his sights are the aid agencies, for their obsessions with security, logistics and procedure in a country that Kershaw has grown to love through discovering its music over decades of visits, a country, which though poor and troubled, is not peopled by savages…

These obsessions indicate not only a self-serving and self-important careerist culture among some, though not all, aid workers (although wide experience of the profession in Haiti and across Africa tells me it is more common than donors would like to think), but that the magnitude of the crisis has paralysed them into a gibbering strike force of box-tickers. Most worryingly, it reveals that many – even selfless – NGO workers on the ground haven’t a clue about the country and its people.

It’s powerful stuff. If we are have to have a “disaster pool” will someone please make sure Andy Kershaw is in it?


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