Is the Haiti earthquake media coverage impeding rescue crews and supplies?

Originally published in MedPage Today

by Bjoern Kils

The 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Haiti’s Porte-au-Prince at 4:53pm on January 12, 2010.

Just 20 hours later, CNN’s Anderson Cooper was updating the AC360 blog from the Dominican Republic, while making his way to an airfield to board a United Nations helicopter to take him and his crew into Haiti.

Is the Haiti earthquake media coverage impeding rescue crews and supplies?While the media plays a central role in disseminating information to the masses — especially during crisis — I was wondering why TV crews were being shuttled towards the epicenter instead of packing those UN choppers with search and rescue crews, doctors, and supplies.

There are many reports of emergency response teams ready to deploy but without a way to the island — the bottleneck being the damaged Port-au-Prince Airport — and many planes had to circle for hours waiting for clearance to land. In some cases they had to be diverted or turned around.

One particularly disturbing report was the live broadcast of the rescue attempt of an 11-year-old girl trapped beneath a pile of rubble. A group of men desperately tried to dig her out, while CNN’s Ivan Watson was standing right among them on that same pile doing a play-by-play of their efforts.

I do wonder if this type of reporting is really necessary or if perhaps two more arms — or four or six more, depending on the number in Watson’s crew — could have made a difference in freeing her.

Sure — any disaster is a media event and it is important to show the world what is going on. Direct reports from the affected areas are what motivates people to make much needed donations.

And while I may disagree with a certain style of reporting, I believe that the cameras do have their place on the ground because, to quote author, educator, and environmentalist Bill McKibben: “Theoretical is the word that people in power use to dismiss anything for which pictures do not exist.”

Bjoern Kils blogs at In Other Words, the MedPage Today staff blog.

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  • Bobby Ewing

    New high resolution pictures on the destruction from the 2010 Haiti Earthquake have been posted from on the ground in Port-Au-Prince and Jacmel

  • Classof65

    Reminds me of Sam Kinnison’s schtick on the starving people in Ethiopia — “Give ‘em your sandwich!”

    Someone needs to take charge of the rescue efforts — it looks as though the Haitians are too shocked, too sad, too depleted both physically and emotionally to organize cleanup and rescue… At least someone should start up a brigade to move supplies from the airport to the city. It is horrible that all that stuff is just sitting on the tarmac while people are perishing from a simple lack of food and water. And, yes, I couldn’t just talk into a mike while others do all the work — put down those cameras and start moving rubble!

  • Kenneth

    I take issue with so many points raised by this article as well as some of the comments left on the page where this article was originally posted.

    First, viewers have been moved to donate tremendous amounts of money – which you rightfully point out – thanks to the candid reports that you are questioning. One could argue that the indirect impact of these reports will do more than the individual work of any single volunteer on the ground. I’m confused how you can state its advantages but then say it’s a bad thing. Make up your mind.

    Second, it has been well documented that many journalists will do all they can to help those around them including sharing their food, water, and satellite phones to help survivors connect with loved ones. They will also help when called upon and are risking their personal safety to be there in the first place.

    Third, if the journalists were ever in the way, don’t you think one of the trained specialists standing right beside them would get the journalist to move? They have been allowed there because they are not posing a risk – but they are showing the world what is really happening on the ground, and everyone involved appreciates that. At any moment, if the assistance was needed, the journalist would no doubt lay down their mic and help. They are human beings, after all.

    Fourth, pulling someone from a downed building is a tedious, strategic task. There is the possibility of further collapse, and it takes someone with training and patience to decide how to go about removing debris. You can’t just get a group of people together and haul everything away. It’s not that simple. These rescue efforts can take hours, and it’s not unfathomable that at some point, a journalist can get close to the action while composing their report.

    The earthquake and its devastation or brutal, but the terrible events will continue to happen regardless of whether or not a journalist is there. They may as well document what is happening so the rest of the world can make a difference.

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