Global Media in Disasters and Media Disasters: Alleged Looters in Haiti
by Jude Fernando, Ph.D.
Global mass media often sensationalise disasters: Disaster sells. Depending on how they cover the disaster, the media can either help or hinder relief efforts. Jude Fernando, a Clark University professor specialising in humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies and natural disasters, explains how repressive governments often play up stereotypical images of alleged looting to transform a humanitarian crisis into a law-and-order crisis.
Images of helpless victims and devastation in Haiti are supplemented by intense media focus on a few Haitians roaming the country with big knives—allegedly escaped prisoners engaged in looting.
Constant repetition of such images grossly exaggerates the size of the problem and feeds global audiences a story rife with stereotypes. In fact, the majority of the “escaped prisoners” have not been convicted of any crime. And they certainly are not an organised militia seeking control over the territory.
Media criminalisation of the local population invokes their memories of colonialism. It fuels anti-Western sentiments in ways detrimental to the good efforts of the Western public to help victims. Local people also sometimes exploit these sentiments to prevent accountability and transparency as well as positive international influence on the recovery process.
What is called “looting” in news reports is often the desperate search for food and water by disaster victims. Local law enforcement agencies often take these “photo opportunities” to transform a humanitarian crisis into a law-and-order crisis. Authorities are more preoccupied with protecting property than in rescuing people. We would be appalled were we not already seduced by media stereotypes that make us believe the worst of people living in developing countries. These inaccurate representations create real fear. Media criminalisation inadvertently justifies the further militarization of civilian society by a repressive Haitian government. In addition, fearful aid organisations waste resources by needlessly investing in security.
Media do not give much coverage to the ongoing disaster of poverty in Haiti, even though poverty has taken far more lives than the earthquake did. It simply isn't “news.” Just as reportage of the tsunami in Sri Lanka failed to contextualise disaster response in light of the ongoing conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers, so did the coverage of the Haiti earthquake fail to examine disaster response in the context of a history of repressive government.
Media enthusiasm lasts only a short time, and it milks sensationalist images for all they are worth. In the end, however, sensationalism works against the interests of disaster victims. Initially sensational media attract attention and a flood of donations. Repetition of those images and stories, however, desensitises the public and results in a quick drop-off of interest in and funding for disaster relief.
The nature of a disaster like an earthquake or a tsunami is to strike suddenly, without warning. Members of the international press may be coincidentally present or suddenly called to the scene. Unprepared, confused and disorganised, in fierce competition with their counterparts, they flail about for “the story” in a foreign country, and they report as if everyone else's responses mirror their own. Thus, the first popular representation of a disaster is of unchecked chaos; reporters do not see the local strategies that communities quickly develop to cope with their physical and emotional needs. “Chaos” sells better than stories about effective local disaster response. Moreover, reporting local response is not nearly so romantic (or easy) as focusing on huge international rescue efforts and fund-raising. This is a problem for disaster victims in the long run, because local strategies tend to be more sustainable and relevant than the cookie-cutter aid run by international disaster relief operations. After all, the international organisations will run out of money after the public's enthusiasm dries up, or they will pack up and leave to chase after the next disaster when it occurs. Local organisations will be left to struggle on without outside assistance.
I don't mean to dismiss the importance of international aid organisations, which are crucial to providing immediate, stop-gap assistance in the wake of disasters. Nor am I suggesting that local organisations are inherently superior in all areas. But it is important to understand that disasters do not completely dismantle or make ineffective all pre-disaster social, economic and political structures. Media preoccupied with sensationalised “chaos” will fail to recognise well-structured order in busy post-disaster situations, or to see how this order dictates the distribution and impact of relief services. Stereotypic reporting of disaster in less-developed nations falls into the easy pattern of blaming locals for corruption and poor service delivery, while completely overlooking the fact that costs are high because humanitarian assistance has been privatised through sub-contracting to for-profit organizations, and service delivery is compromised by petty competition for territory among international aid organisations.
Post-disaster situations often become opportunities to advance agendas that would have been impossible under normal circumstances. But politicians and business interests often exploit disaster situations by relocating marginalised people, actions that in normal times would meet popular protest and political resistance. For example, security and surveillance systems are installed under the guise of protecting the public welfare. This is particularly true when disasters occur in the midst of a political conflict, at which point the response to the humanitarian crisis is often dictated by national security imperatives. News that simplifies and sensationalises only obscures the complexity of post-disaster situations shaped by politically charged interests and agendas.
The global media play an important role in post-disaster response. Depending on how they cover the disaster, they can help or hinder relief efforts. It's tempting for mass media to sensationalise disasters. Disaster sells. It's also common for media to rush in and report a disaster without doing any background research, so that reporters' impressions—and subsequently the public's—are misinformed at best, and, at worst, misleading and detrimental to the well-being of victims. This is the situation in Haiti right now and, to help earthquake victims, we must demand better media reports. Responsible media should track and report the international community's progress on honouring its pledges of assistance. We must also demand sustained reports, rather than a media bail-out when the next interesting disaster appears on the horizon.