How to write about Haiti?
I’ve just observed several minutes of silence thinking about the answer to this question. It’s probably the only honest response to the suffering, death and calamity in Port-au-Prince right now. Other than adding some dollars to the relief fund and uttering things like, "those poor buggers" while shaking my head in bewilderment, it doesn’t seem there is much else I can do.
The response of the media to a catastrophe is always fascinating, however, and I am compelled to respond. Amid so much death and chaos, the journalist is, arguably, vital. And their role is also revolting.
"Arguably", because I suspect that citizen journalists could provide audiences with all the information and images we need to keep up with what is happening in Haiti — and to prod us to help in whatever limited ways we can. How many photographs of women weeping over the dead bodies of their children do we need to see to comprehend the situation and respond?
And "revolting" because journalists work in an economy that thrives on tragedy. Irrespective of how many photographs, films and words are needed, there is a booming market for them — especially in the middle of a typically slow news month. The difficulties posed by this uneasy relationship between the world’s appetite for information and a media economy that sells ads by wrapping them in tragedy are not new, but digital technologies that foster citizen journalism and allow images and information to proliferate and circulate in a heartbeat add a sharp edge to an old question: How should journalists respond to catastrophes like Haiti?
Much of the news coverage I’ve seen of Haiti has been ethical and sensitive, and I’m thankful for it. Some of it, however, has been atrocious, and that is to be expected. ABC1 news coverage last week homed in on the story of a woman who survived for two days after being trapped under a collapsed building. As she emerged from the rubble, an American journalist could be heard asking if she was "happy to have escaped alive". Does that journalist really need to be in Haiti?
What about Channel Seven newsman Mike Amor? Is he really the most qualified person to be "rescuing" infants? His emotive package last Saturday night was one of the strangest and — for me at least — most disturbing pieces of "journalism" to appear on Australian television in recent times.
And what of photojournalism? Intrepid photojournalists once provided the images through which the world was "discovered" through weekly news magazines and their mass audiences; there is, however, no longer much of the world, or indeed of human nature, that has not already "been seen". Notwithstanding the extreme and chronic poverty of most Haitians, there are thousands of cameras and camera phones in use in Port-au-Prince. The photojournalist’s specific role is no longer to provide visual evidence of events and new phenomena, but to compose memorable images of the unfolding misery, chaos, death and — hopefully — resilience of the people who are living it.
In the first half of last century Walter Benjamin wrote that photography had "succeeded in turning abject poverty itself, by handling it in a modish, technically perfect way, into an object of enjoyment". The uncomfortable relationship between aesthetics and care in photojournalism is not a new one either, but when the 2011 World Press Photo exhibition comes to Australia, the striking images from Haiti that we will no doubt see on the gallery walls will — we must hope — communicate something unexpected or provide some degree of unseen human context to the events.
It is here that I believe we can find a more ethically sustainable role for journalism in response to catastrophic events. If citizen journalism can create — and indeed is creating — the news, then journalists might be liberated to look beyond headlines and the news cycle to provide analyses of current events as well as situating them in their proper context. Haiti would then be transformed from a news headline into a country with an extraordinary past, a challenging present and an uncertain future; a country with its own musical rhythms, its own foods and flavours, its own ideas and its own questions for the world.
One of the best articles I have read on Haiti appeared on the comment pages of the Guardian. Entitled "Our Role in Haiti’s Plight", philosopher Peter Hallward’s article is both challenging and informative. Reader responses to the online version of his piece prompted me to write my own article. Here are a couple of examples:
"We will argue about the rights and wrongs of Haitian politics when we know there are still enough people alive to give a shit. But now is not the time."
"You can’t bring history into this. That was then, this is now. I stayed up half the night watching the news about this, and I’m not interested in what the US government of yesteryear did. I want to know what I can do to help now, even if it’s a small and relatively insignificant contribution to a disaster fund."
The people who wrote these appear to be sincerely concerned about what is happening in Haiti — but their comments display a misunderstanding of both the role of the journalist and the nature of the media. It is always the role of the journalist to provide context, to provoke thought and, if necessary, discomfort. And rightly or wrongly, the only time it is possible to publish more reflective articles about an issue, or country such as Haiti is when that country is already making headlines — usually for horrific reasons.
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