Monday, January 25, 2010

Next News From Haiti: Pulling Out


Anderson Cooper of CNN in Haiti last week. Soon, he laments, “people are just going to lose interest in this as a story.”

The CNN anchor Anderson Cooper knows the 24-hour news cycle as well as anyone, and last week, he lamented that the survivors of the Haiti earthquake would soon fall victim to that reality.

“We all know what’s going to happen” in a week or two, he said to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the CNN medical correspondent and a practicing neurosurgeon. “People are just going to lose interest in this as a story. They’re going to stop watching.”

Dr. Gupta answered, “In part, it’s up to you and up to us to make sure they don’t forget.”

The devastation in Haiti has, in the words of the Pew Research Center, dominated the “public’s consciousness” in a way that few international disasters ever have. Dozens of television channels showed a celebrity telethon on Friday, raising at least $57 million. The attention has come in large part because of the news media’s reportorial muscle, the kind that is harder to flex in a challenging economic climate.

In an event of this magnitude, “you cover it first and worry about the money second,” said Paul Friedman, an executive vice president for CBS News.

Executives acknowledge that the worries arise now. They say, however, that the same technology that let reporters and camera crews arrive ahead of aid shipments will let them withdraw staff from the country but return with relative ease when events call for it.

The aftermath of the quake most likely will demand more attention. A Haitian official estimated Sunday that the government had buried 150,000 bodies.

Scores of reporters reached the ruined capital, Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 13, within 24 hours of the magnitude 7.0 earthquake. They were, in a word, stunned.

“In 30 seconds, this country was set back 100 years,” Bill Hemmer, an anchor at the Fox News Channel, said.

Three narratives quickly took shape: the sheer number of dead; the overwhelming number of injured; and the delays in reaching survivors with aid. Journalists with medical experience found themselves pressed into performing surgery, often with the cameras rolling.

One night, Dr. Gupta was the only doctor at a field hospital in Port-au-Prince after a Belgian medical team evacuated because of security concerns. He and his CNN producers stabilized patients and gave painkillers. Days later, he performed brain surgery on a 12-year-old girl.

“Death is final, but to hear the cries of the living — that is what is haunting about our experience,” said Mr. Hemmer, who returned from Haiti last Monday.

The logistics were, and remain, daunting. News outlets rushed to charter airplanes and snap up extra seats on aid flights, but that was the easy part. Upon arrival, they had to establish supply lines, mostly through the neighboring Dominican Republic.

“This is unlike anything we’ve ever done,” Charlie Mayer, the director of operations for National Public Radio, said Friday. “We’ve never had to truck in food and water and fuel for generators,” he said — not after the South Asian tsunami, not even in Baghdad. “We’re doing that now in Haiti.”

Twice, CBS crews in Haiti ran out of water, Mr. Friedman said.

On “NBC Nightly News,” Brian Williams called the Haiti earthquake the third global tragedy in five years where “we have arrived before the first responders,” the first two being the tsunami in late 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Some say the media’s ability to arrive so swiftly and show the widespread suffering in a place like Port-au-Prince influences the public’s reactions. “It puts more pressure on governments around the world to respond,” Mr. Hemmer said.

The network evening news anchors flew back to the United States after their Jan. 15 broadcasts. But each of the American television networks still had at least two crews in the country as of Sunday. Other news organizations have also maintained robust presences: through the weekend, The New York Times and NPR each had 10 staff members in Haiti. Some local television stations, from Miami to Detroit, still have reporters in Haiti.

The Pew Research Center found last week that 60 percent of Americans were following news about the earthquake closely, mostly through TV newscasts. “This is a picture story, to a very large degree,” said Andrew Kohut, the president of the Pew Research Center.

Occasionally the pictures have created controversy. Graphic photos of dead bodies on the front pages of newspapers offended some subscribers, who made their disapproval known to The Times’s public editor and The Washington Post’s ombudsman. In columns on Sunday, both men said the newspapers were right to display the unsettling photos.

News outlets also faced questions about the balancing act between passively documenting the conditions in Haiti and actively helping survivors. After The Associated Press wrote about a nursing home near the Port-au-Prince airport, readers asked whether the reporter, Alfred de Montesquiou, had tried to help the dying residents.

On a Facebook page for The A.P., a senior managing editor, John Daniszewski, said that the reporter had returned to the nursing home with a case of water. Perhaps more important, “through his journalism he alerted the authorities,” Mr. Daniszewski wrote. Hours after the article was published, an aid organization contacted The A.P. asking for details.

Some of the more visible acts of aid by journalists provoked hand-wringing, and even led one organization, the Society of Professional Journalists, to issue a statement admonishing self-promotion. News organizations mostly shrugged off the criticism.

“People want a sense of the humanity,” said Tony Maddox, the managing director for CNN International, as long as it does not become something resembling “here’s my adventure in Haiti.”

All this coverage does not come cheap. But portable equipment that allows for filing and broadcasting via the Internet “makes it less expensive than it was even five years ago,” said Jon Banner, the executive producer of ABC’s “World News With Diane Sawyer.” “It allows us to travel lighter and to be more mobile.” Still, the trade publication Broadcasting & Cable estimated that each TV network would spend about $1.5 million on the earthquake coverage.

Mr. Friedman said Friday that CBS was “drawing down people as fast as we can, because the story is not as central as it was, and because we’ve got to start worrying about all the money we’re spending.”

Susan Chira, the foreign editor of The Times, said the newspaper would decrease staff gradually. She expects “to have a regular presence rotating in and out of Haiti over the coming year since the reconstruction will be a compelling and important story.”

Mr. Maddox said he expected CNN to maintain some staff in Haiti for months.

Mr. Cooper and Dr. Gupta decided over the weekend to stay in Haiti for another week.

“I can’t really imagine going home,” Mr. Cooper wrote on Twitter on Saturday morning. He expressed almost the same sentiment after Katrina.

“Stories like this are very good at reminding people about why we got into this business,” Mr. Maddox said.

Source: NyTimes

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