Haiti Coverage and “Disaster Porn”

Cholera epidemic offers convenient B-roll for nightly newscasts

Last month I was reporting a story on the opening of a mango warehouse in Haiti’s countryside when a fellow reporter got a phone call from his editor: forget about mangoes and get to Saint Marc, where an unknown disease had already killed forty-four people. We arrived at the town’s hospital an hour later. Hundreds of people—men, women, and children—lay on the ground with IVs in their arms. Those who could stand waited in long lines to see a doctor, but some were already in shock and dying by the time someone got to them. By the end of the day, the death toll had risen to 135, and though the Haitian government had not yet confirmed it, nearly every doctor at the hospital identified the cause to me as cholera.

Over the last month, American news outlets have followed the cholera epidemic as the disease has spread throughout Haiti and into Port au Prince, where over one million earthquake victims are still living in tent camps with little or no sanitation and access to clean water. The presence of cholera in these overcrowded camps will undoubtedly have horrific consequences. Cholera is not endemic to Haiti and speculation in the press of the source of the outbreak has at times taken the tone of a Michael Crichton thriller with a whodunit twist. (A yet unproven theory is that United Nations peacekeeping troops from South Asia brought the deadly bacteria into the country.) More frequently, the outbreak is explained the same way so many of Haiti’s problems are by the American media: simply a consequence of the nation’s “crushing” or “devastating” poverty, with little context or investigation.

Is America’s news coverage of the cholera epidemic, which has now taken over one thousand lives, yet another example of an industry reliance on “disaster porn”? In the New York Daily News, Haiti-based journalist Ansel Herz pointed out that CNN returned to Haiti for the second time since the January 12 earthquake to cover the cholera outbreak—but in a typically lurid fashion, with little attention to the underlying causes.* “With CNN lagging behind its more partisan competitors, disaster porn is now the news channel’s bread and butter,” wrote Herz. “But it has managed to entirely miss the big-picture story: The cholera outbreak itself is a symptom of failed foreign policies and organizations that have left the Haitian people as poor as ever and disconnected from the mechanisms of their own development.”

CNN’s twenty-four-hour coverage of the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, which took an estimated 300,000 lives, doubled the network’s viewership. This coverage undoubtedly played a role in the America public’s response to the tragedy—one out of two Americans donated money to aid organizations. But little reporting has been done since then that asks how exactly that money is being spent, holds aid organizations accountable to their promises, or investigates the American government’s development and economic policies in the country. These policies, argues sociologist Alex Dupuy, have kept Haiti frozen in a destructive cycle of aid-dependence and exploitation for decades, stripping Haiti of its self-determination. “For the level of tragedy, no one’s really being very honest,” said Michael Fairbanks, a development expert, of the American and international community’s rhetoric about Haiti since the earthquake. “[Haitians] are constantly put into the position of adolescence and being infantilized so they can prey on the charity from the rest of the hemisphere.”

The longer American news outlets ignore these critical and complex issues, the easier it will become to view their occasional jaunts to Haiti with cynicism: it’s an convenient place to get B-roll of tragedy and disaster. Their coverage increases viewership, but without a moral component of responsibility towards Haitians themselves over the long-term, such coverage is basically exploitative. And over time, superficial reporting on Haiti’s problems—which plays a role in soliciting charitable donations from Americans-will arguably make the media culpable in the very system of aid-dependence and misguided development policies that help keep Haiti poor.

Some Haitian journalists already view the motivations of the foreign media with cynicism. Claude Gilles runs the Reporters without Borders Media Operations Center in Port au Prince, which allowed radio stations and newspapers to begin reporting again within days of the earthquake. “In the U.S. or France, when there is no sex or violence or anything like that, that’s when you see them coming into Haiti looking for those things,” said Gilles. “Every country in the world knows that blood, sex, and violence sell.”

Correction: We originally reported that CNN’s coverage of the recent cholera epidemic marked the network’s first visit to Haiti since the January 12 earthquake. In fact, it was the second time—Anderson Cooper visited Haiti this summer to receive an honorary knighthood from the Haitian government. The relevant sentence has been updated. CJR regrets the error.

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Maura R. O'Connor is a freelance foreign correspondent. This year she was awarded a Phillips Foundation Journalism Fellowship and will be reporting on American foreign aid from Haiti, Afghanistan, and Africa. Tags: , , ,