The Ethics of Media Coverage in Haiti

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The Ethics of Media Coverage in Haiti

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Globe and Mail staff photographer Fernando Morales with one of his images from Haiti.

During the weeks after the earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, shocking images and stories flooded news outlets. Hundreds of journalists from around the world were sent to the devastated nation to record the aftermath, raising a number of professional and ethical quandaries. Tuesday night at Innis Town Hall, the Canadian Journalism Foundation brought together a panel of reporters to discuss these issues. One fundamental question dominated the discussion: how do you balance responsible journalism with humanity?


Moderated by author and journalist Sally Armstrong, “Stories from Haiti: A Round Table Discussion with Reporters Who Were There” gathered Maclean’s foreign correspondent Michael Petrou, Toronto Star reporter and columnist Catherine Porter, Globe and Mail reporter Anna Mehler Paperny, and Globe and Mail photographer Fernando Morales—all of whom were on the ground in Haiti.
The journalists spoke about their experiences and some of the decisions they faced while reporting. Petrou told a story about coming across a Spanish rescue team digging a Haitian woman out of the rubble. The team was guarded by half a dozen UN Peacekeepers armed with rifles. Just as she was about to be extricated, pistol shots rang out a few streets over. The UN workers immediately ordered the rescue workers and Petrou to leave the scene. “It bothered me a lot,” said Petrou. So he went back. “Godamnit! If I’m unarmed, and willing and able to walk through these streets, why can’t twenty of these international helpers with assault riffles do it?”
Porter said that she had brought along to Haiti just enough power bars and granola bars for herself and others working with her, but would find herself talking to people who hadn’t eaten for days. If there were fifty hungry people in the surrounding area, would giving away two granola bars—those she’d brought for herself and her translator—make a difference? “I’d rather have forty-eight hungry people than fifty,” she would tell her translator. And he’d reply, “There’s going to be forty-eight hungry people and two dead journalists.” Nevertheless, she “crossed the line” several times, and handed out the bars. “I was there to do a job, but I was also there as a human to help people,” she reasoned.
These stories bring up all sorts of questions: what is the role of journalists in these situations? Are they supposed to merely report the facts? Are they expected to offer their help? Can they really separate their professional role from the natural compassionate human reaction?
“It’s impossible to be objective when you’re faced with this kind of situation,” said Paperny. “Objectivity doesn’t exist because you’re talking to people who are dying or who are in horrific situations.”

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Left to right: Fernando Morales, Michael Petrou, and Catherine Porter.


“I err on the side of being a human rather than a journalist,” said Petrou. But, he added, “However you feel emotionally or subjectively, your job as a journalist is to tell the truth—full stop, whether it hurts or helps, or affects or negatively affects.”
The panel also discussed sensationalism. The term “disaster porn” started to circulate after Bill Maher criticized much of the coverage on Haiti (though he directed his comments mostly at the American television news networks). “Did I see that coverage?” Paperny said. “Absolutely. Was I consciously trying to avoid that in my own writing? Yeah. But I don’t think it diminished in any way the importance of covering that situation. I would never say you shouldn’t go there or shouldn’t be covering this because of the danger of reducing it to disaster porn.”
Porter mentioned that journalism changes in these instances too—it becomes much more raw. You can no longer depend on talking to experts (professors, policy makers) because they’re simply too hard to contact. So you just dive in and write about what you see throughout the day.
Morales, a photographer on the scene, said he never really knew what he was going to shoot. Even though he would have an assignment, he would get so distracted by the images he encountered throughout the day.
The discussion highlighted that this wasn’t your average journalism: the reporters were not only confronted with unimaginable devastation and fear, but also with ethical questions not often raised in their routine professional lives. Perhaps Porter said it best: “Comparatively for me, being there felt like the most important journalism I’ve ever done because I was telling stories that could change people’s lives.”
Torontoist’s Nick Kozak’s was one of the photographers in Haiti after the quake. His photos from the ground are here.
Photos by Nick Kozak/Torontoist.

CORRECTION: MARCH 19, 2010 This article was originally less clear than it could have been in describing Catherine Porter’s story about food in Haiti. We originally wrote that Porter “would interview people who hadn’t eaten for days. Meanwhile, she had a backpack filled with power bars and granola bars.” While it is true, Porter clarified in an email to Torontoist, that she “brought granola bars and power bars…in my luggage,” our article did not make it clear that those supplies were rations for two weeks, and that when Porter left her room for the day she would only bring just enough food for her and her translator. (“I ate them for breakfast and lunch for at least a week,” she says, “before the grocery stores opened again.”) Torontoist regrets causing any confusion.

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