Fresh from covering Haiti’s earthquake, four Canadian journalists discuss ethical dilemmas and disaster porn. Sylvia Squair reports on the CJF’s forum: Stories from Haiti: A Round Table Discussion with Reporters Who Were There, featuring Macleans foreign correspondent Michael Petrou, Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter, Globe and Mail reporter Anna Mehler Paperny and Globe and Mail photographer Fernando Morales.
In downtown Port au Prince, on the Sunday after the January 12 quake, reporter Michael Petrou joined a crowd watching a Spanish rescue team struggle to find a woman trapped under a crushed building. A group of Canadian peacekeepers and Jordanian police stood guard. The excitement rose as the team made contact and started calling for stretchers, talking to the woman and passing her water. Finally, Petrou thought, a good news story amidst Haiti’s devastation and loss.
Then, a few blocks away, some pistol shots rang out. A murmur rose amongst the crowd: an order had come from the UN to pull out. The rescue workers protested – they were so close. But as the armed guards packed up and left, the rescuers were forced to follow. The woman continued to call for help from under the rubble. A Haitian man called after the departing crew, “Elle va mourrir!” – She’s going to die!
“It was horrible to watch,” said Petrou.
Petrou, a foreign correspondent with Macleans magazine, shared his story with a packed crowd at the University of Toronto at a presentation by the Canadian Journalism Foundation titled Stories from Haiti: A Round Table Discussion with Reporters Who Were There. Joining him were Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter, Globe and Mail reporter Anna Mehler Paperny and Globe and Mail photographer Fernando Morales. Veteran journalist Sally Armstrong moderated (and defused some tense moments during question period).
The first point all were quick to make: while the devastation in Haiti is terrible, they didn’t experience the chaos they had expected. Haitians were quick to create their own order.
Counter to the West’s fears of rioting, Morales showed riveting photos of thousands of people, their faces patient and defeated, lining up in food queues that snaked for miles. Others slowly picked through rubble for pieces of cloth, photographs and mattresses – anything they could scavenge to bring comfort to their lives.
Faced with Haiti’s resilience in the midst of heartbreak, all four journalists struggled with the desire to hand over their own resources while maintaining a journalist’s objectivity. They all admitted to “crossing the line” between being a journalist, and simply being human. Porter recalled handing out her granola bars, her only food for breakfast and lunch, against the advice of her translator.
A hot topic of the night was whether the “true story” could emerge from a country with centuries-old economic and political struggles. Who speaks for Haitians? Porter says it was difficult to find any authority on the ground. The most available voice came from Western NGOs, she said, and Paperny agreed.
“Who’s making the rules? It’s the people with the money,” Paperny said in an interview.
Some members of the audience were outraged at the media’s coverage of the earthquake, suggesting that Haiti’s prior struggles are being ignored while the natural disaster gets overplayed as journalists bombard readers with “disaster porn.”
“There SHOULD be disaster porn,” Porter said. “This is huge. It should be covered big.”
But Petrou expressed frustration that stories such as Haiti, which are visible and easy to cover, galvanize the western world into action while millions perish from disease and civil strife in places like the Congo.
“They’re just as dead,” he said, “and nobody even knows.”
[Watch the roundtable discussion here.]