Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti: As Big Media Pulls Out, Stories Still Need Telling

There's been a great deal of concern over mainstream media's coverage of the recent earthquake in Haiti and its aftermath. From the blogosphere, to the alternative news circuits, to the average kitchen table, many folks were asking difficult questions about what was and wasn't showing up in television and radio broadcasts and in newspaper spreads.

"Racism", "sensationalism", and even "staging" quickly became a part of those discussions.

I wrote a rant - okay, two rants - not long ago about the treatment of Haitians in the press - and failures of the mainstream press in accurately covering the many sides and contributing factors of the story. I was one small voice in a very loud chorus - and if I weren't, I'd still stand by said rants.

Nevertheless, a lot of us were disappointed when the New York Times reported yesterday that many large, highly resourced news services and corporations were "Pulling Out" of Haiti - even though we already knew the deal.

Why? Because loathing the methods of newsgathering in much of the media is like hating the postal service in your neighborhood.

The service is crappy most of the time - and you wish the employees were still wearing appropriate uniforms - but you still can't help but depend on it.

Sure, we understand the nature of the news (and advertisers) these days - and we understand the nature of consumers. News networks can't necessarily afford to take up further residence in Haiti. We get the advertising dollars model. We comprehend viewer burnout.

But many of us also understand that as newspapers, radio services, and television network programs continue to consolidate, shrink, and cut corners, pulling out really means pulling out. Even 20 years ago, we could depend on regional and international reporters, or at least stringers, who could keep us abreast of notable stories around the world. Those days are largely gone.

Concerned Americans looking for news, analysis, and commentary have to work harder and harder to access it - it's become an elite exercise for bloggers, academics, and those who have the time to find a BBC or AP wire story and a world map.

Always, and certainly right this minute, that's a problem, because we need some big eyes and ears in Haiti - even those that don't see or hear so well.

Under-resourced activists, educators, writers, bloggers, and citizens sitting in their offices in, say, Durham, still depend on the "big" news. We watch/read/listen to it, and then we turn around and talk behind its back. Of course, big news operations are also watching the influential bloggers and alternative journalists - and demonstrating the same snarky behavior (some in new, sparkly blog posts).

That's what frenemies do. And when it works, it works.

Michel Martin spoke to this relationship yesterday in her commentary titled "Why We Hate (And Thank) The Media In Times of Disaster" on Tell Me More. She offered a sharp rebuttal to those hatin' on the "MSM" - Mainstream Media.

"Some of the first people in have been who?" she asked. "Reporters - working for the biggest news outlets. They are the ones who are there, often before virtually any representative of government was there..."

"I have to say it annoys me when I get these smug posts from the bloggers and activists who are all promising to go in 'after the cameras leave' and 'stay after the cameras have gone'. I ask these people, if the cameras and microphones weren't there, would you be going at all?".

She makes a solid point - she's Michel Martin, after all (Much respec'. You can hear the entire commentary below - and I highly recommend Tell Me More).

But at the end of the day, I have to argue that it wouldn't matter to me if those telling the story were mainstream journalists, underground reporters, or intrepid bloggers, so long as the stories got the attention they deserved. Storytellers are important, but the power and reach of the platform, unfortunately, are still the biggest factors in whether the word gets out.

I appreciate Ms. Martin's inquiry, but I think folks like me are asking another, more troubling question:

Two weeks-months-years from now, when hundreds of thousands of children are still vulnerable to suffering from injuries, hunger, grief, and loneliness, who will bear witness loud enough to be heard?

Who will spur us to humanity, and compassion, and action (and yes, perhaps, to more angry blog rants)?

*Image Credits: Associated Press. Earthquake Survivor Camp
J.J. Guillén/European Pressphoto Agency. Journalists at camp in Port-au-Prince

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