The University of Texas at Austin
  • Opinion: Great television, bad journalism: Media failures in Haiti coverage

    By Robert Jensen
    Robert Jensen
    Published: Jan. 25, 2010

    Robert Jensen

    Robert Jensen is a journalism professor in the College of Communication.

    CNN’s star anchor Anderson Cooper narrates a chaotic street scene in Port-au-Prince. A boy is struck in the head by a rock thrown by a looter from a roof. Cooper helps him to the side of the road, and then realizes the boy is disoriented and unable to get away. Laying down his digital camera (but still being filmed by another CNN camera), Cooper picks up the boy and lifts him over a barricade to safety, we hope.

    “We don’t know what happened to that little boy,” Cooper said in his report. “All we know now is, there’s blood in the streets.”

    Watch the video of Cooper on YouTube.

    This is great television, but it’s not great journalism. In fact, it’s irresponsible journalism.

    Cooper goes on to point out there is no widespread looting in the city and that the violence in the scene that viewers have just witnessed appears to be idiosyncratic. The obvious question: If it’s not representative of what’s happening, why did CNN put it on the air? Given that Haitians generally have been organizing themselves into neighborhood committees to take care of each other in the absence a functioning central government, isn’t that violent scene an isolated incident that distorts the larger reality?

    Cooper tries to rescue the piece by pointing out that while such violence is not common, if it were to become common, well, that would be bad — “it is a fear of what might come.” But people are more likely to remember the dramatic images than his fumbling attempt to put the images in context.

    Unfortunately, CNN and Cooper’s combination of great TV and bad journalism are not idiosyncratic; television news routinely falls into the trap of emphasizing visually compelling and dramatic stories at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex.

    The absence of crucial historical and political context describes the print coverage as well; the facts, analysis and opinion that U.S. citizens need to understand these events are rarely provided. For example, in the past week we’ve heard journalists repeat endlessly the observation that Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Did it ever occur to editors to assign reporters to ask why?

    The immediate suffering in Haiti is the result of a natural disaster, but that suffering is compounded by political disasters of the past two centuries, and considerable responsibility for those disasters lies not only with Haitian elites but also with U.S. policymakers.

    Journalists have noted that a slave revolt led to the founding of an independent Haiti in 1804 and have made passing reference to how France’s subsequent demand for “reparations” (to compensate the French for their lost property, the slaves) crippled Haiti economically for more than a century. Some journalists have even pointed out that while it was a slave society, the United States backed France in that cruel policy and didn’t recognize Haitian independence until the Civil War. Occasional references also have been made to the 1915 U.S. invasion under the “liberal” Woodrow Wilson and an occupation that lasted until 1934, and to the support the U.S. government gave to the two brutal Duvalier dictatorships (the infamous “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc”) that ravaged the country from 1957-86. But there’s little discussion of how the problems of contemporary Haiti can be traced to those policies.

    Even more glaring is the absence of discussion of more recent Haiti-U.S. relations, especially U.S. support for the two coups (1991 and 2004) against a democratically elected president. Jean-Bertrand Aristide won a stunning victory in 1990 by articulating the aspirations of Haiti’s poorest citizens, and his populist economic program irritated both Haitian elites and U.S. policymakers. The first Bush administration nominally condemned the 1991 military coup but gave tacit support to the generals. President Clinton eventually helped Artistide return to power Haiti in 1994, but not until the Haitian leader had been forced to capitulate to business-friendly economic policies demanded by the United States. When Aristide won another election in 2000 and continued to advocate for ordinary Haitians, the second Bush administration blocked crucial loans to his government and supported the violent reactionary forces attacking Aristide’s party. The sad conclusion to that policy came in 2004, when the U.S. military effectively kidnapped Aristide and flew him out of the country. Aristide today lives in South Africa, blocked by the United States from returning to his country, where he still has many supporters and could help with relief efforts.

    How many people watching Cooper’s mass-mediated heroism on CNN know that U.S. policymakers have actively undermined Haitian democracy and opposed that country’s most successful grassroots political movement? During the first days of coverage of the earthquake, it’s understandable that news organizations focused on the immediate crisis. But more than a week later, what excuse do journalists have?

    Shouldn’t TV pundits demand that the United States accept responsibility for our contribution to this state of affairs? As politicians express concern about Haitian poverty and bemoan the lack of a competent Haitian government to mobilize during the disaster, shouldn’t journalists ask why they have not supported the Haitian people in the past? When Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are appointed to head up the humanitarian effort, should not journalists ask the obvious, if impolite, questions about those former presidents’ contributions to Haitian suffering?

    Listen to Professor Jensen’s radio interview with KUT.

    • Quote 2
      Jennifer D said on Dec. 25, 2010 at 12:22 a.m.
      @Thom Have you even read the article, man?
    • Quote 2
      Thom Noble said on Oct. 5, 2010 at 6:25 p.m.
      I would like some true news that is not bi-est.
    • Quote 2
      Charles Soto said on Feb. 25, 2010 at 12:05 p.m.
      I basically agree that with few exceptions, TV journalism stinks. However, I'll remind that statements such as "at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex" are essentially pointing out a difference in opinion. What "good journalists" deem to be "crucial" is subjective. Ultimately, history decides. Secondly, I reject the notion that just because "there is history" behind a geographical region or society, that the entire historical context must be presented in order to provide context. Not really. As a story about a crisis spawn from a geological event, I would expect backgrounds on the geography of the Caribbean and Hispanola. The relative status of Haiti's economy would be useful to know, as this impacts both the severity and the anticipated response to this event. But to add the political, historical and cultural context merely serves a political agenda. It is quite appropriate for investigative treatments and historical analyses. But "live TV" need not be expected to go to such depths.
    • Quote 2
      Noel said on Feb. 17, 2010 at 9:44 p.m.
      *poor journalism
    • Quote 2
      Noel said on Feb. 17, 2010 at 9:43 p.m.
      Agreed; Now if only we could take that critical eye and point it toward media coverage failings in events in our own country. Don't mean to beat a dead horse, but the way the media and pundits handled and continue to handle issues dealing with September 11th are appalling. If we actually open up the stage to serious discussion, we may find that our whole entire foreign relations offensive is a sham, and that our media may just be complicit in poor journalism, if much of it isn't down right misleading or bogus, and what is shown or discussed is for spectacle. I would really appreciate well written articles from reputable scholars in America working for universities to tackle this issue without fear of repercussions.
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    • Quote 2
      Joshua DeVries said on Jan. 28, 2010 at 4:46 p.m.
      My thanks to Dr. Jensen for giving useful background to the current crisis in Haiti. I'm not the first to say that the most important change in America would be a long memory. If even a significant proportion of the US media had any responsibility in their reporting, it might help us down that road.
    • Quote 2
      Barbara Carlson said on Jan. 28, 2010 at 11:53 a.m.
      Very well said. Thank you for posting these comments on the "news" media. As a US citizen I'm embarrassed by their shallowness and the feeding frenzy for more drama that we as a culture exhibit.
    • Quote 2
      jim hankinson said on Jan. 27, 2010 at 9:20 a.m.
      Excellent analysis and criticism; there is another feature of 'news' as entertainment that merits mentioning, since it has been greatly in evidence in the Haiti coverage, and that is the tendency of the news media to report the story from a U.S. angle, specifically 'feel good' 'stories' that involve how wonderfully well the American people have responded to the crisis - all of them anecdotal and of absolutely no value as analysis. What are you people in the Journalism school doing to counteract these degeneracies?
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