News coverage of the Haiti earthquake and its aftermath suggests a bias on the part of news media, writes Manoucheka Celeste, a Haitian and University of Washington graduate student. "While the images mobilized some to help," she writes, "they are damaging in the long term ... ."
As a Haitian, former journalist and media scholar, the earthquake in Haiti was both personally devastating and intellectually challenging.
The first earthquake to hit Haiti in more than 200 years was unbelievable, unexpected and unprecedented. The devastation is clear with more than 200,000 lives lost. The damage is real. As we saw, people around world responded quickly and generously.
This catastrophe presented an opportunity for media to respond in an unprecedented way. Some news outlets arrived before relief workers and doctors. We watched the horrors as they happened. I hoped that this was the moment when those of us trained in journalism would do something remarkable: Bring news of an unimaginable event in a way that disrupted the sensational and stereotypical ways that people in the “Third World” are represented.
What we got instead was much less humane. Videos of dead bodies, including children and the elderly, filled our television screens. For those of us who tuned in for information about friends and families, it was and is unbearable and despicable. Coverage went from sensational to ridiculous as CNN compared the literacy rates of Haiti and the United States. This was irrelevant as it continued to represent Haiti as a failed state.
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The focus on poverty, with the repeated tagline “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” and references to crime and unrest, make it hard for viewers to imagine any other aspect of life in Haiti. People were called looters for taking food from collapsed buildings after not having eaten for days, framing their survival as a crime. The humanity needed in this moment is clearly missing.
Media scholars have long connected media coverage with public opinion, cultivating our attitudes and creating and reinforcing stereotypes. It is predominantly people of color who are shown negatively in news and entertainment. While the images mobilized some to help, they are damaging in the long term as they become ingrained in how we imagine Haitians. For many this is the first and last contact they will have with this population. The images matter as Haitians are shown as less than human. In mass media when images of Haiti and various countries in the African continent are shown, blackness becomes associated with helplessness, danger, poverty and hopelessness.
In the most disgusting moment in broadcast history, Pat Robertson proclaimed that Haiti had it coming because of its “deal with the devil,” linking Haiti to “godlessness.” What Robertson didn’t consider was that “godlessness” was used as an excuse to kill and colonize peoples throughout history in the name of God, including Haiti, which, incidentally, is a heavily Christian country.
The question that plagues me and hopefully all audiences is: Who is able to die with dignity? (In recent media history, there are few, but increasing instances where dead Americans are shown. From Columbine to Sept. 11, we rightfully protect the dead and rarely dare show them on television or in newspapers. Yet, the increasing presence of graphic and emotionally charged images, especially in broadcast media makes it seem normal or desirable.
This earthquake, despite the amazing pain that it has caused to so many, presents an unprecedented opportunity. Viewers and readers can demand that in people’s darkest hour or once they lose their lives that they are treated with dignity.
We want the story without sensationalism and reinforcement of stereotypes. We want the media to value the lives of people who are “not us.” As I waited for eight days to hear that my own mother and grandmother in Port-au-Prince are safe, I wanted to hold on to good memories of the person who brought me into the world and the one who taught me to be generous and tenacious. Let’s seize the opportunity of this horrific tragedy to demand better from our news sources: dignity for everyone.
Manoucheka Celeste is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington.