How depressing the UK and US TV news coverage has been of the Haitian earthquake – and I don’t just mean of the human tragedy of the disaster. US channels, led by Fox, have covered the horror through the prism of American domestic politics, focusing this weekend on why President Obama called in both of his predecessors. He must have some underhand reason for doing so is Fox’s assertion.
The BBC and Sky liked to cover everything with the sub-text of how bad the international organizations are performing. Aid not getting through. A lack of coordination between the aid agencies. And this from news organizations based in a country that collapses when there is half-a-foot of snow!
There was, in short, a tremendous absence of mature judgment in the coverage. Few reporters offered serious analysis of the logistical nightmare it is to cope with an earthquake of this scale in such a poor country. The distances involved. The consequences of a country losing a functioning government. A port that is hardly operating, A one-runway airport trying to cope with huge traffic without a control tower, etc. The standards of journalism just fall and fall. Obviously there are criticisms to be made of the coordination but the focus just on this detracts from the extraordinary efforts of aid workers and organisations and the ignores the heroism of rescuers and survivors alike.
Too many of the journalists thrown in appear to lack experience and have no stories to compare. And the profession as whole is determined to analyse (without judgment and maturity) and they forget that they are at root just story-tellers and reporters. The superior attitude of BBC journalists is just totally insufferable. Interestingly, the BBC reporters tended to stick close to the airport and not travel as much as journalists from some other news outlets.
By far and away the best practical coverage came from CNN International, which while acknowledging the frustrations of the survivors, preferred to explore the practical and threw up individual stories. CNN International journalists spent less time on making assertions and apportioning blame and more time on securing actual detailed stories. One report focused on a supermarket and looked at the challenges of digging people out, explored who the rescuers were and the people who were rescued. Their reporters seemed to understand that the scale of the tragedy would throw off any aid effort.
Al Jazeera was also disappointing. Normally the outlet performs well with on-the-ground reporting, although admittedly in its home region of the Middle East or in the nearby Indian sub-continent. This time it kept on securing the services of obscure academics to debate in the studio whether the Americans are good or bad guys.
So my plea to my former colleagues is tell me the story and leave out your pre-programmed ideology, please. And I have another suggestion. Every journalist should be required to leave the profession for a year or so every few years to do a job outside journalism. It would inform their reporting tremendously when they returned. Otherwise we are going to rely increasingly on citizen journalism via social media technology to get the facts.