2010 cases: Haiti earthquake

Kenna Garinger

1.            Around 5 p.m. on January 12, 2010, an earthquake of 7.0 magnitude hit Haiti just ten miles southwest of the capital, Port-au-Prince. The cost of damages was estimated to be between $7.2 million and $13.2 million; hospitals, schools, prisons and other government buildings crumbled under the earthquake’s force. The approximated death toll was 200,000 to 250,000 but was later corrected by President René Préval to be 300,000. U.S. journalists quickly traveled to Haiti to document the devastating scene, including Damon Winter – photographer for The New York Times. After his first day, Winter sent 26 photos to his editor. One – a picture of a woman walking in horror down a street lined with bodies – was used for the front-page story on January 14th. After the Times published the story along with the picture, many readers were prompt to respond. Some readers were horrified that the Times would run such “unnecessary, unethical, unkind and inhumane” (Hoyt) pictures on their front page. Other readers were appreciative of the photos, saying “People repelled by such pictures ‘should really try staring truth in the face occasionally and try to understand it’” (Hoyt).

The major controversy being dealt with on covering the earthquake in Haiti and all other tragic situations is how much of the truth do you show? How much of the trauma can you show without going too far? The Times received mixed opinions on what was pushing the limits. Pictures within the articles perturbed readers the most. In the article “Haiti’s Earthquake: A Photo Gallery” published on October 1st, the most noteworthy photographs taken within ten days were arranged in a slideshow. Photographs displayed corpses, survivors mourning their losses, looters, and other extremely disturbing pictures. The front-page article on January 14th, “Haiti Lies in Ruins; Grim Search for Untold Dead,” featured a woman walking down the street with a look of utter terror as she walked among the dead.

The content of these articles had more supporters than detractors, but the few critics said the articles and pictures were uncalled for. Christa Robbins of Chicago, commented saying:

I feel that the people who have suffered the most are being spectacularized by your blood-and-gore photographs, which do not inform me at all of the relief efforts, the political stability of the region or the extent of damage to families and infrastructure. (Hoyt)

She also commented on whether or not, if this had occurred in the United States, the media would have shown the “half-clothed bodies.” In contrast, many readers found the articles to be shocking but were grateful to have access to them. Kenneth Irby, a veteran photojournalist whose wife had family unaccounted for in Haiti, described the Times coverage as “raw, truthful and tasteful.” Bill Keller, the executive editor for the Times, said they chose the photographs they did because they were “dramatic and there was an intimacy that causes people to pause and dwell on the depths of the tragedy” (Hoyt).

Another question faced with this particular story is: can an outsider be sensitive enough to the community to report on such an event? During his stay in Haiti, Damon Winter was constantly asked by survivors to photograph the corpses of family members to convey the pain and extent of the damage to their country. He stated that so many families requested that he document their stories that he had to start turning them down. Most articles pertaining to the story included individuals’ reactions. For instance, in the article “Morgue Becomes Mountain of Anguish” by Simon Romero, Romero includes quotes from several survivors at a morgue in Haiti who are searching for bodies of loved ones. He documents an account with a man named Pierre Ricky Constant who called out to President Obama for help.

Coverage of the earthquake in Haiti is similar to the coverage of the Columbine shooting because they both bring up the questions: How much gruesome is too much? And what happens when nonlocal media groups cover a story that should be handled with kindness and sensitivity?  Local journalists shooting the Columbine case had to be extremely careful about what was said and shown to the public. News stations had to carefully monitor live interviews with distraught teens and constantly be knowledgeable of what and who was being zoomed in on. Towards the end of the case study, it describes how outsider news groups, like CNN, started reporting the story with insensitivity and with little respect to the citizens of Jefferson County because they had no connection to the community. They weren’t necessarily being vigilant of what they were reporting; they were just reporting what they saw and knew which upset the community.

Journalists reporting on the earthquake in Haiti had to figure out what was too gruesome to put in the news. Editors made sure the pictures and stories were tasteful and didn’t expose too much of the gore. In contrast to Columbine, the coverage of Haiti demonstrates that on occasions it’s helpful to have outsiders report on a particularly devastating topic. As a result of American reporters delivering the news of the earthquake and showing pictures of the devastation in Haiti, many groups and individuals were eager to help those in need. A media group called Internews set up a radio station that informed locals of “water and food distribution points, public health advisories and services, openings in camps for people who’ve lost their homes, and tips on creating safe and reliable shelter” (Brainard). Internews also raised two millions dollars to help aid Haiti in its recovery.  Millions of Americans felt the need to contribute to foundations like Red Cross, Unicef, Hope for Haiti Foundation, and many more because they were well informed of the extent of the crisis. In the end, The New York Times and many others news organizations felt that it was important to push the limit on what was overly repugnant and possibly perceived as tasteless in order to help out a country in need.

2.            Reporters have been dealing with the issue of what is appropriate to put in newspapers since they first had the ability to. More recently journalists have had to deal with Cyclone Nargis on May 5, 2008, Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005, the Indian Ocean Tsunami on December 26, 2004, the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and many more. In each case, reporters had to approach the story very cautiously and with great sensitivity. They had to contemplate how to deliver the story without offending anyone involved and anyone reading the story. Reporters also had to determine which pictures to use in order to portray the story while maintaining a sense of decency and respect for the situation. More often than not, reporters will publish more disturbing pictures depicting tragedies that did not occur on American soil. For instance, photographs of corpses and wounded individuals can be found alongside stories discussing the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. But, reporters seemed to have more respect for those involved in Hurricane Katrina and September 11th.  Although, “the Times did publish a front-page picture of a body floating near a bridge where a woman was feeding her dog. But despite Katrina’s toll, there was relatively few such images in the paper” (Hoyt).

That leads to the next major issue: can outsider reporters cover a catastrophe in a foreign location with enough sensitivity to the community involved? When reporting on disasters that occur in the United States, reporters avoid printing pictures of corpses. “If this had happened in California, I cannot imagine a similar depiction of half-clothed bodies splayed out for the camera” (Hoyt) said Times reader Christa Robbins. Reporters will include pictures of the oppressed stealing from grocery stores and gas stations, of wounded individuals, of families mourning their losses, but you will rarely find a picture of a corpse that has been posted by a news institution. Reporters seem to do the complete opposite of that when it concerns destruction that occurs over seas in various other countries. More often than not, pictures are of corpses, individuals searching through morgues for family members, rubble containing dead bodies, etc. When comparing the coverage of American disasters versus disasters in other countries, reporters seem to have less of a concern for the privacy of those communities. Is it because the reporters do not care about these particular communities? Or is it because news organizations are trying to inform Americans of the entirety of the devastation that is occurring over seas? Many would argue that they are trying to help out those in need. Numerous organizations have been formed to help societies across seas that are in trouble as a result of news organizations showing even the most disturbing details.

To deal with the ethical principles of a sensitive topic many journalists turn to the Potter Box Method. The Potter Box Method is a four-step process that deals with the facts, values, principles and loyalties of the issue. The facts step includes laying out all the facts known about the story without any judgments. Next, the journalist needs to weigh in the values based on different perspectives (aesthetic values, professional values, logical values, sociocultural values, and moral values). During this stage, the writer must weigh in concerns for the individuals involved. Following the value stage is the principles stage. Principles are ethical philosophies that may help the writer better understand the issues at hand better. For instance, a writer reporting on the earthquake in Haiti may take into consideration the Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance philosophy; it asks the individual to place himself in the position of the person(s) involved in the decision. Finally, the journalist must consider to whom he has loyalties. A journalist’s first loyalty is always to the public. After that, he may factor in loyalties to his employer, organizations or co-workers.

Nonlocal news stations also have to make sure their stories are believable. As discussed in the Columbine case study, people are more apt to believe local stations than they are nonlocal stations. A chart we viewed showed that now more than ever, people prefer the news coverage of local stations to coverage by news stations like ABC, CBS, and NBC. As a result of this, mainstream news organizations have to find ways to enhance their believability. News groups have to constantly deal with proving their facts. Readers and viewers are not going to believe a story if the news station simple delivers the story by stating facts. In order to prove a story, reporters have to produce hard evidence as well as visual evidence. Particularly with the Haiti crisis, no news groups delivering updates to Americans were going to be local; this forced the stations to use gruesome pictures, live footage, etc. as a way to reinforce the stories they were reporting.  “Many outlets took the local angle, speaking to local Haitian-Americans anxious for news of their loved one” (Fenwick). Also, in the beginning, much of the information was “crowdsourced” information. As a result of not being able to send reporters quickly to Haiti, newspapers resulted to “analyzing international and Haitian media, Twitter, and Facebook to look for reports…that could explain what was happening on the ground”  (Silverman). In order to verify the reliability of tweets and posts, news teams would trace the posts back to their sources and only used them if they were posted by dependable sources. Without the use of photos and live feeds, many Americans would have had “frustration…at being unable to learn much information” (Fenwick).

3.            Key Questions

Listed below are several questions that will help conduct the lecture and reinforce processing the case study on a deeper level:

1. Pretend you are Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times. What would you allow to be printed on the front page of the Times? What would you consider to be crossing the line?

2. When reporting on a sensitive subject, a reporter has to consider all possible viewpoints and factors involved. What are some possible viewpoints that readers will take? What factors should be considered?

3. How could you justify news organizations resulting to horrific pictures to amp up believability? How else could a news organization portray the entirety of the devastation without using horrifying pictures?

4. Imagine you’re in Damon Winter’s place and you have individuals coming up to you and begging you document and publish their stories. How do you decide which individuals to turn away because you already have too many stories? Would you be able to turn away individuals? Or do you believe that Winter should have collected all possible stories and decided from there which stories to actually publish? Why or why not?

5. Do you think it is okay for newspapers to publish pictures of corpses on their front page where all will see it? Why or why not?

6. The Times received multiple complaints saying that the pictures should not have been printed for the story. If you were the editor, would you continue printing gruesome stories? Why or why not?

7. Do you believe that the reporters writing about the earthquake in Haiti handled the story with enough sensitivity? Why or why not?

4.            The purpose of this case study is mainly to explore and discuss what is considered to be “decent” enough to publish in a paper. What is crossing the line when it comes to blood and gore? Also, it discusses the ability of an outsider journalist to report sensitively on an issue directly affecting a community. Begin by asking the class questions one and five. These two questions will begin the discussion of the main question discussed in the case study. Direct the students to think of examples they have seen in newspapers or on TV that they may have considered to be inappropriate. Also, encourage them to recall other natural disasters and what was involved in the coverage of those stories. Next, use questions three and six to drive further into the issue at hand. Question three addresses the news using pictures to support their believability. Support the discussion by asking students to think of which stories they read first in a newspaper, magazine, etc.; do they read those with pictures or the ones with just plain text first? Have the students consider whether or not they would believe a story more or less if it did not include pictures of the incident it was discussing.

Finally, use questions two, four and seven to start the conversation about outside journalists reporting with enough sensitivity to cover a story like this one. Start by asking question seven to receive a general consensus of how the class thinks the Times delivered the story. Follow up with question two and have the students discuss all possible viewpoints and angles this story could have been taken from. End with question four because it deals with an actual problem that the Times photographer had to deal with.

5. Sources

Brainard, Curtis. “The Voice of the Affected : CJR.” Columbia Journalism Review. N.p., 26 Apr. 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2010.

Fenwick, Alexandra. “Early Earthquake Coverage Roundup : CJR.” Columbia Journalism Review. N.p., 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.

“Haiti Earthquake of 2010 – The New York Times.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 12 July 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

“Haiti News – Breaking World Haiti News – The New York Times.” Times Topics. N.p., 1 Oct. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

HOYT, CLARK. “The Public Editor – Face to Face With Tragedy – Op-Ed – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 23 Jan. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

“News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-Lived: Other Important Findings and Analysis – Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.” Index of /. N.p., 4 Aug. 2002. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.

“Potter Box – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., 19 Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2010.

Scaruffi, Pierro. “Natural Disasters.” Piero Scaruffi’s knowledge base. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

Silverman, Craig. “The Challenge of Verifying Crowdsourced Information : CJR.” Columbia Journalism Review. N.p., 27 Aug. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2010.

ROMERO, SIMON. “Haiti Lies in Ruins – Grim Search for Untold Dead – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 21 Oct. 2010.

ROMERO, SIMON. “Morgue Becomes Mountain of Anguish – NYTimes.com.” The New York Times – Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. N.p., 14 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 Oct. 2010.

Rosenstiel, Thomas, and Amy S. Mitchell. Thinking Clearly: Cases in Journalistic Decision-Making. 0 ed. Columbia: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.

6. Other Sources

“BBC News – Haiti devastated by massive earthquake.” BBC News – Home. N.p., 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

” YouTube – HAITI EARTHQUAKE warning these footage are very sad and disturbing.” YouTube – Broadcast Yourself. . N.p., 12 Jan. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2010.

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