The Role of the Media in Times of Crisis

January 21, 2010
By | 9 Comments

I really hate US television news. I detest its lack of historical context and investigative journalism, and its drive for ratings through fantastical and voyeuristic stories. There are moments, however, when I turn to television news to provide the visual, immediate, and ongoing coverage of stories not easily gained through newspapers, radio programs, or the Web: moments like 9/11, the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Kashmir earthquake and now the earthquake in Haiti. Many American television journalists, like Brian Williams, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and Anderson Cooper, arrived in Haiti before much of the “relief effort” arrived. Like many of you, I have watched the coverage with my jaw dropped, overwhelmed and distraught by what these journalists have shown me.

Once the initial shock wore off, I wanted more information about Haiti, and the television news hater in me returned. Much of the television coverage has lacked historical information about Haiti and its relationship to the United States, focusing instead on images of flattened buildings, suffering people and stories of survivors searching for loved ones. I was truly appalled when I watched Anderson Cooper place a microphone deep into a demolished building to allow viewers to hear the screams of the 15-year-old girl trapped in the rubble. More recent stories have turned to death counts and plans for rebuilding.

The US television coverage of Haiti has me thinking about the role of media in a humanitarian crisis. Certainly the coverage we receive in the US is to serve the American viewing public. This coverage has no doubt encouraged Americans to donate the more than $100 million the American Red Cross has received through text-messages (don’t get me started about slackitvism). So we can argue that US television news indirectly has helped give aid to the Haitian people for medical care, food, and shelter, but how can the media benefit Haitians more directly?

Pondering this, I came upon an article in the New York Times that discussed the role of radio in Haiti (radio is Haiti’s most popular medium due to widespread illiteracy and lack of electricity). One station in particular, Signal FM in Port-Au-Prince has broadcast 24 hours a day nonstop through the earthquake to get critical information to their audience: remarks from Haitian President Rene Preval, details necessary for locating aid, and lists of the names of the missing. Internews, an international media development organization, is working with local journalists in Haiti to restore radio stations damaged by the earthquake and to produce programming to help Haitians receive humanitarian information. The organization argues that “strong, effective, local media are uniquely positioned to play a catalytic role in engaging communities during an emergency.”

I agree that Haiti needs a strong local and national media to weather this crisis and begin to rebuild. But they will also need foreign aid, and as we know, foreign aid is dependant upon information. What will happen in Haiti when the ratings-driving television coverage disappears, when news organizations pull their foreign correspondents (who are too few in numbers these days) to cover other crises? If the United States is going to play a useful part in Haiti’s rebuilding, US television news coverage must be ongoing and must work to give the American people a deeper knowledge of Haiti’s history and its future needs. We know from our own crisis in New Orleans that the needs of a community do not disappear just because news coverage does. The crisis in Haiti offers US television news a chance to do a bit of their own rebuilding—I really hope they take it.


Tags: , ,

9 Responses to “ The Role of the Media in Times of Crisis ”

  1. Chuck on January 21, 2010 at 3:22 PM

    To supplement this reading of radio’s place in the Haitian information industry, be sure to check out Jonathan Demme’s The Agronomist, a powerful documentary about radio journalist and human rights activist Jean Dominique. Like you, I’ve often found the coverage of Haiti to be exploitative and often dehistoricized, relentlessly and breathlessly focusing on the immediate.

    Anderson Cooper had a similar flub when he repeated false warnings about an imminent flood live on CNN when in fact it was looters trying to frighten refugees. We definitely need better coverage of these kinds of events.

    • Matt Sienkiewicz on January 22, 2010 at 3:28 AM

      Being overseas at the moment I have been spared the American television coverage of the tragedy, relying mostly on the web to try to keep up. That area of coverage is of course far too broad to summarize or critique.

      (However, as an aside, the politicization of the extensive Israeli aid to Haiti, mostly by critics but also by advocates, has been equal parts overwhelming and appalling in the Middle East. Good editorial here if interested:

      Anyway, you are absolutely right that the our current news structure really provides no means by which to continue focusing on Haiti as the story gets replaced by the next tragedy. There is no quick fix of course, so all I have to offer is two laments:

      1. US News has never developed any sense of regionalism beyond America’s borders. We have a national/international binary that I think is almost uniquely rigid and makes places like Mexico, Canada and Haiti sometimes feel just as far away as China or Australia. There is a sense in which Haitians are (North) Americans but that’s not something that rings a bell at all in the States.
      2. The lack of long-form news/popular TV documentary. In Europe people make and watch television documentaries, a form that would be of great service as a periodic reminder of ongoing stories of recovery such as this one. We have Frontline, which is excellent but underscheduled, underfunded and barely watched. I’m sure (or I hope) there will be a Haiti episode this coming season but it won’t gain the kind of viewership to make much of dent.

  2. Chuck on January 22, 2010 at 12:36 PM

    It’s worth noting that Haiti’s Cine Institute has begun posting footage on Vimeo with the hopes of shedding light on the situation there. Salon has a solid article about their efforts:

  3. The Chutry Experiment » Documenting Haiti on January 22, 2010 at 1:00 PM

    […] the “liveness” of the story, the fact that the crisis is unfolding in real time, but as Melissa Click points out, once the initial crisis wears off, it is questionable whether the news media will […]

  4. Myles McNutt on January 22, 2010 at 4:11 PM

    While I’ve been remiss in staying abreast of the offline media coverage surrounding Haiti, as my current place of residence has no 24-hour news channels and I’m trapped in fictional worlds when the news is otherwise on, I’m wondering if NBC’s scheduling gaps and the arrival of two hours of Dateline every Friday night could lead to further Haiti coverage. I don’t know what the lead time on Dateline instalments is, but I think that that NBC could be a network that ends up staying in Haiti long than others thanks to their current predicament.

    Or maybe I’m just searching for any positive spin-off from the Late Night debacle I can find.

  5. Ky Boyd on January 22, 2010 at 8:28 PM

    In her excellent (and hilarious) book “And So It Goes…Adventures in Television,” published in 1986, Linda Ellerbee says “In the movie ‘Network,’ a satire on television news, Paddy Chayefsky, the screenwriter, has a character say that television is ‘democracy at its ugliest.’ Chayefsky got a laugh but missed the point. It’s not democracy at its ugliest; it’s paternalism at its slickest.” 23 years later thing have not changed and in fact have probably gotten even worse.

  6. V Mayer on January 23, 2010 at 7:27 AM

    What do you mean the news coverage of New Orleans disappeared? Katrina is the second reference whenever Saints come up in the NFL coverage. I think you need to expand that definition of “news.” LOL

  7. Melissa Click on January 25, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    Thanks everyone for the posts–sorry not to stay engaged with the topic (I have been nursing a bad sinus infection). Being sick has given me the opportunity to watch even more television coverage of Haiti, and I’m no less disappointed than when I wrote last week! Thanks for giving me some new places to look for satisfying coverage of Haiti.

  8. Sandra on June 11, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    The US media coverage of Haiti was really well done in my opinion. They campaigned alot for aid to be given which was nice to see.
    On one hand what you say is true.. they should have focussed on the historical situation between Haiti and the US. However, what would that have helped?
    By showing the footage that they did, it made people donate more and more.. which eventually ended up helping the people of Haiti.