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When the Media Is the Disaster

In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, false depictions of victims as criminals hinder the relief effort.
 
 
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Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin:  ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.

I’m talking, of course, about those members of the mass media whose misrepresentation of what goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a second wave of disaster.  I’m talking about the treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol. They still have blood on their hands from Hurricane Katrina, and they are staining themselves anew in Haiti.

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for example, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of photographs with captions that kept deploying the word “looting.” One was of a man lying face down on the ground with this caption: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.” The man’s sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.

Another photo was labeled: “Looting continued in Haiti on the third day after the earthquake, although there were more police in downtown Port-au-Prince.” It showed a somber crowd wandering amid shattered piles of concrete in a landscape where, visibly, there could be little worth taking anyway.

A third image was captioned: “A looter makes off with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked store.” Yet another: “The body of a police officer lies in a Port-au-Prince street. He was accidentally shot by fellow police who mistook him for a looter.”

People were then still trapped alive in the rubble. A translator for Australian TV dug out a toddler who’d survived 68 hours without food or water, orphaned but claimed by an uncle who had lost his pregnant wife. Others were hideously wounded and awaiting medical attention that wasn’t arriving. Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, needed, and still need, water, food, shelter, and first aid. The media in disaster bifurcates. Some step out of their usual “objective” roles to respond with kindness and practical aid. Others bring out the arsenal of clichés and pernicious myths and begin to assault the survivors all over again.

The “looter” in the first photo might well have been taking that milk to starving children and babies, but for the news media that wasn’t the most urgent problem. The “looter” stooped under the weight of two big bolts of fabric might well have been bringing it to now homeless people trying to shelter from a fierce tropical sun under improvised tents.

The pictures do convey desperation, but they don’t convey crime. Except perhaps for that shooting of a fellow police officer -- his colleagues were so focused on property that they were reckless when it came to human life, and a man died for no good reason in a landscape already saturated with death.

In recent days, there have been scattered accounts of confrontations involving weapons, and these may be a different matter.  But the man with the powdered milk? Is he really a criminal? There may be more to know, but with what I’ve seen I’m not convinced.

What Would You Do?

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.

 
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