Monday, January 18, 2010

The media on Haiti: finding food vs. 'looting'

When Are Haitians Looters and When Are They Just Hungry?
Natalie Hopkinson, The Root: An arresting Damon Winter photo of a Haitian child graces the cover of the Sunday New York Times. A boy of about 10 wearing a bright red, oversized polo shirt, is caught mid-stride by the camera, dashing through the streets of Port-au-Prince, eyes gazing purposely ahead, gripping a white plastic bag.

The caption gives a seemingly 'objective' recitation of the facts. 'Haitians fled gunshots that rang out in downtown Port-au-Prince Saturday. Tons of relief supplies had arrived for delivery.' It is up to the viewer to connect the dots, and connect them to another front-page article below the fold: 'Looting Flares Where Order Breaks Down.'

So was the kid looting?

Nearly five years ago, when you could see photo captions of white Hurricane Katrina survivors side-by-side with black survivors, the racial double standard in the news media covering a catastrophic tragedy were obvious. Hungry, desperate white survivors were 'finding food' while hungry, desperate black survivors were 'looting' for food.

Le Monde's front page is given over to an interview with the Haitian novelist Dany Laferrière, who was in Port-au-Prince at the moment of the earthquake. He wants people to stop talking about Haiti as if it was cursed, suggesting that the island's population was, in some sense, being punished for a past crime. And he wonders about the identification of those who took food from destroyed shops as 'looters,' saying that, when people risk their lives, crawling through ruins in search of something to eat and drink, they are motivated by need, not by greed.

The Lede: Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honore, retired, who took charge of security in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, told CNN: 'These people are trying to survive, and you should not shoot someone over trying to get food -- they are [doing] nothing but expressing a human need to get food.'

On Monday in Port-au-Prince Lt. Gen. P.K. Keen, deputy commander of US Southern Command, told the media that, despite reports of violence that may have been amplified in the press and online, there appears to be less violence on Haiti's streets now than there was before the earthquake.
Image sources here and here.