Media Ethics and Haiti

  • Rebecca Solnit has written a powerful piece questioning the news media’s accounts of “looting” in Haiti. She argues that people in the midst of a disaster with a breakdown of infrastructure and government assistance are acting reasonably and justifiably when they take food and other necessities from abandoned stores. She believes that media accounts emphasizing looting warp the public perception of what is happening, vilifies the victims of the disaster, and prompts excessive measures against the “looters,” who are only trying to survive. She has a point. You can read her whole piece here.
  • There is something oppressive and coercive when so many networks and cable channels interrupt regular programming to carry a telethon, as they did last night. It turns an appeal for help into a demand for help. The media removes all entertainment competition so that an appeal for funds is almost unavoidable: is this fair and responsible? I don’t think so. This is an abuse of the media’s power. Why is this telethon accorded the aura of a presidential address…indeed, it was covered more extensively than an inaugural or a State of the Union speech, with even entertainment-only stations carrying it—while, for example, the Jerry Lewis Telethon is relegated to one station per market?  Is helping children suffering from a dread disease a less legitimate cause than Haitian aid? Someone who wanted to watch the Haiti concert could have easily done so with a small faction of the channels covering the event. I am sure Fox News will be criticized for its decision to pass, but in this case, it was striking a blow against media bullying. And bullying for a good cause is still bullying, and still wrong.
  • Let’s play “Guess that Ethics Violation”! NBC used the concert and telethon to advertise its Olympics coverage, placing the Olympic logo right next to the phone number for Haiti contributions. Why is this revolting? And the answer is: This was a blatant breach of the following ethical values: responsibility, dignity, self-restraint, prudence, and respect. And it was crass. How did you do?
  • A reporter fails an on-camera compassion test, from the excellent blog, “Nightly-Daily”:

“But without a doubt, my favorite moment from Nightly News’s Haiti coverage was also on Thursday’s broadcast, when Brian was reporting from the side of the road as hundreds of Haitians streamed by him, desperately searching for food and water. As Brian began his report, he realized that he was holding a bottle of water, so he quickly and awkwardly hid the bottle in his pocket, rather than offering it to one of the thirsty children running past him. It was pretty thoughtless of Brian to be holding a bottle of water while reporting in a country with a massive water shortage. Then on Monday’s broadcast, as we saw footage of Haitian children receiving bottles of water from U.S. soldiers, Brian said, “Did you hear those thank-yous? There’s a lesson for every child–incredible politeness after waiting six days for one bottle of water.” Maybe if Brian had shared his water on Thursday, they wouldn’t have had to wait six days. Water, water everywhere, but only for Brian Williams.”

I have some sympathy for Williams; obviously he is in Haiti to do a job, and is not required to subject himself to all the discomforts of the residents. On the other hand, he surely has access to more water. Giving his bottle to a child would seem to be the kind and responsible thing to do. I wonder: have reporters been briefed about how to handle these situations, both on camera and off? They should be.

One thought on “Media Ethics and Haiti

  1. Pingback: Media Ethics and Haiti »coolweather

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