Thursday, January 21, 2010

Media Coverage of Black Victims of Natural Disasters: Hugo, Katrina, and Earthquake in Haiti

In the days immediately following the earthquake that devastated Haiti, media companies devoted almost all of their air time to the tragic aftermath. But, even with almost 24-hour coverage, almost nothing was reported about why Haiti (its people and its buildings) was so vulnerable when the earthquake struck. From this coverage, we learned only about the inadequate building code and the abject poverty in which most Haitians lived before the earthquake. News corporations omitted important historical and political context. This omission helped to portray Haitian victims as pitiable, needy, unprepared, and the Haitian government and infrastructure as inexplicably inept and inferior. In contrast, benefactors from around the world – donors, doctors and rescue workers from the US, Britain, France and elsewhere – generously assisted Haitians in their time of need. US companies – Honeywell, Dow, Google, Wal-Mart, Wells Fargo, GM and others – donated to relief efforts in the devastated island nation.

Ten days have passed since the earthquake struck and news outlets are still covering the story. But next to nothing is said about the role played by the US, Britain, and France in causing centuries of economic devastation in Haiti that made it so vulnerable to the natural disasters that plagued it in 2008 and 2010.

Haiti was the first country founded by formerly enslaved Africans. After the enslaved Africans of Haiti worked for decades, providing the free labor that contributed significantly to European economic stability, Haiti was forced to pay dearly for its armed uprising eradicating slavery. Haiti took out high interest loans in order to pay tens of millions of dollars (francs actually) in “reparations” to the French. These “reparations” were paid to compensate former enslavers for their “lost property”. The property the French lost was the enslaved Africans themselves, the Haitian people. Why did Haiti pay what today would amount to billions in reparations for having liberated itself from slavery? Haiti paid in order to free itself from a crippling embargo that had been imposed by France, Britain and the United States. At no time in the extensive media coverage in recent days did I hear a discussion about the decades of slavery and the extortion of wealth from Haitians called reparations as an explanation for the poverty in Haiti to which the media repeatedly referred.

Haiti’s spiraling poverty has been attributable in part to its indebtedness to American banks. In 1915, the US invaded Haiti after US banks complained about this debt to President Woodrow Wilson. The American occupation was brutal. The effects of this occupation, which lasted until 1934, persist today.

Instead of providing historical perspective, the media spent a great deal of time reporting “reports of violence” and looting in the earthquake’s aftermath. This took me back to news coverage about Hurricane Katrina. Remember the two different photographs published by Yahoo! News showing hurricane victims walking with food through chest-deep waters? According to the captions provided by the two different photographers, a white couple had found the food in the hurricane’s aftermath. A black man looted the food he had.

Years after Katrina, we now know that the stories of murder, rape and violence in its aftermath were grossly exaggerated. I watched the coverage of the earthquake in Haiti closely. I saw some people running. Things looked disorganized. I saw people tugging and pushing to get to food and other items. It seemed no worse than the pushing, tugging and shoving I’ve seen during some department store sales here in the US.

I did see a group of young Haitian men with machetes. Some reporters said that these men were violent gang members. This reminded me of Hurricane Hugo which hit St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands in 1989. Like the Haitian earthquake victims, and the New Orleans Katrina victims, most of Hugo’s victims were black and therefore particularly scary to many white observers. I have a dear friend in St. Croix who talked to me about Hugo’s aftermath. My friend is a veterinarian, an entrepreneur, a musician, and the owner of several beachfront homes. Days after the hurricane hit St. Croix, he attempted to clear his property of debris with a machete. When his white next door neighbors saw him, they didn’t recognize him. They were paralyzed with fear, seeing only his machete and his brown skin.


  1. Thank you for your insights~ yet one more situation where the color of our skin dictates our perception. Sad that the historical perspective is not represented by the media.
    I recently moved here to St. Croix and am crushed by the situation in Haiti. The sorrow is deeply felt by so many islanders here~ many have families in Haiti- and still no word of their well-being. It's so frustrating for them to be hindered by the lack of infastructure in Haiti- brought on by the decades of poverty that is NOT being recognized by the media.
    Wish the news would report the WHOLE story. Thanks again for your perspective in this article.

  2. There are always more than two sides to every story, and this is the perfect example. The Haitian fear of U.S. occupation has heightened since our troops have arrived, and now I see the reason why - because we have invaded before. Unfortunately, the situation in Haiti seems to have no hope. The U.S. and other European countries will never be able to make it up to the Haitians for putting them at a disadvantage from the start, but I am glad to see such an outpouring of help from the nations around the world. I am hopeful that the people of Haiti will be able to make positive changes in their country, and to do so with the aid and guidance of the U.S. and other countries.

  3. First, I would like to say that I am extremely happy to see the international outpouring of assistance to our nieghbor in Haiti. I am to very proud of my fellow citizens here in the Virgin Islands who already donated and sent money and goods and are still collecting and gathering more to send as soon as we can.
    Second, I would like to say that the entire world is aware and has been aware of the plight of the Haitian Nation prior to this earthquake. If this type of outpouring of love and assistance had taken place over the last 50 years Haiti would be able to survive this crisis just as the people of Los Angeles survive their 1989 Quake.
    Third, let us endeavor to let this be an overdue wake up call for the rest of the world to truly participate in the building a new Haiti (not rebuilding) as we did for the Japanese and Germans after WWII. And let the people of Haiti take the lead by planning for themselve with our assistance.
    Finally, while we cannot deny the racial bias and overtone we must acknowledge it and move on and not let it be the cancer that infect and engulf us all.

  4. Cheryl, thank you for this great piece!

    The ignorance and the mis-education regarding Haiti and its people are staggering. Many journalists continue to portray the Haitian people as they would animals in a zoo. Unfortunately, the attempt by some journalists to re-write history has been successful.

    The Haitian people are not to be pitied because they are a mighty people. The oppressed people of the world owe a debt of gratitude to the Haitian people for providing a blueprint for gaining independence. The Haitian revolution was won by successfully crushing Napolean's powerful army. Napolean left Haiti in defeat and the people of Haiti have paid the price for defying their former masters.
    The Haitian people continue to suffer for gaining their independence. You are on point when you expressed that the poverty in Haiti is a manifestion of the crushing aggression against the Haitian people because they dared to be free.
    We must do what we can to help the Haitian people to build their country from scratch.

  5. It disturbs me when news companies try to exploit people in a dire time of trouble such as the earthquake in Haiti. Regardless of whether the men with machetes were gang members or not, in a time like this, it is only natural for humans to go into survival mode. I am not condoning looting or any other criminal activity but I think we have to understand the desperation that occurs when mother nature sends her wrath. News companies should focus on the bigger issues such as getting people the help they need opposed to exploiting these helpless people.

  6. A disaster like the earthquake in Haiti is such a huge tragedy it almost seems like news organizations are grasping at straws in an attempt to make the situation seem less intense. By focusing on individuals within the country and their behavior, the news is able to avoid the bigger questions that plague the Haitians, such as why they are so poor and in so much need of assistance. I think that it is wonderful that the U.S. and other countries are willing to help the Haitians, however, this is something that should be an ongoing effort and not merely something that occurs during a time of tragedy.

  7. One of my first thoughts after I heard about the earthquake was also why the people and buildings were so vulnerable as well. I expected to hear more information about this immediately from some news outlets and I was surprised when it was not readily discussed. I also understand the anger that many people feel when they hear reporters portray black victims as criminals or unruly after a disaster. The problem is that there is a greater concern with getting the news out before other media outlets rather than a concern for what is really occurring. Sadly, I don’t think this will change anytime soon. I only hope that after this tragedy the people of Haiti will get the help they need and deserve.

  8. The media portraying black victims of natural disasters as criminals is nothing new. The media is more obsessed with getting A story out than getting the RIGHT story out. What happened in Haiti is a huge tragedy and I am so glad to see that many countries are helping. However, a lot of that help is out of obligation. So many people have wronged the Haitian people so they feel they should do something to make themselves look and feel better. I am sure that only a few percent of those people feel this way. I truly believe that a lot of people are helping out of the kindness of their hearts. However, few paid attention to Haiti before the tragedy. I truly hope that the people of Haiti can recover from this tragedy.

  9. Cheryl, you shed such an important light on this very tragic event. Even more troubling than the media's ignorance of the history that may have led to Haiti's vulnerability, is the media's continued exploitation and depiction of one of the most courageous nations of people. Like the media coverage of Hurricane Katrina, it is shameful that they use a tragic event such as this to further stereotypes and foster racial imbalance.

  10. I am so grateful for your comments. I am a Florida native and many of my close friends are of Haitian descent and there are so many misconceptions about their culture. The media has done an excellent job in showing all of the current turmoil but there has been no effort made to see what has brought the country to its current position. My heart truly goes out for the people ff Haiti, but rather than feeling pitty here is an opportunity for this country to try and empower them. We have such an influx of resources and now is the time for us to lend a helping hand. Haitians were one of the first to break away from slavery and they paid a hefty price. The country is still feeling the aftermath of that, and there is only so much they can take. These times are hard, not only for them but for any person who would have had to face the same ordeal. Let us pray for their nation and their recovery.
    -David H. Kenton

  11. Cheryl your views and commentary are very insightful. Considering that I have a Bachelor's degree in African American Studies I can understand the plight of people of color all around the world. It was and still is truly devastating what happened to the Nation of Haiti. I feel that it is very distasteful how the media has portrayed the devastation of a proud nation.

    It is very commendable how volunteers from all around the world have stepped up in Haiti's time of need, however, I think that those of us who represent a humane race have an obligation to help. Haiti's strong opposition to a life of slavery has forever changed the history of not only those of a darker complexion but the entire human race.

    It is sad that there are still a vast majority of out population who will never see us all as equals or better yet respect people, like the people of Haiti, who have laid down a foundation for change.

  12. After years of suppressing Haiti and its citizens, it startles me as to how the US can appear so shocked at its lack of preparation in times of crisis. Without a solid economic foundation, it is impossible for the Haitian government to reserve funds to support its communities and people during emergency situations.
    Furthermore, the potrayal of the Haitian community has played a major role in the development of Haiti. With all of the negative pubnlicity, Haiti has been isolated from economic growth and development. In my opinion, when times get rough people usually do whatever is possible to survive. This is exactly what the Haitians are doing and have done. The depiction of the Haitian victims as needy is not accurate. Instead, the victims are in need of assistance, but only because they have been suppressed by nations such as the US for so long.
    Instead, of focusing on what the media considers "negative" in Haiti, they should divert attention to what's important. What is important now is that an appreciation for Haiti's history is developed and that every possible effort that will help with redevelolpment is made.

  13. The earthquake in Haiti is a terrible tragedy. Many have lost their lives, while others have lost their homes and loved ones. I agree that the media's spin on the news coverage in Haiti can be misleading and can lead people to make false assumptions. However, I believe that the media coverage has caused Haiti to become the subject of global attention. This attention and news coverage has resulted in many nations contributing what they can to aid in relief efforts. I fear that once the media lessens coverage of the disaster, governments and individuals alike will eventually reduce, if not end, their contributions to Haiti.

  14. Photojournalists have to carefully balance the selections they choose to represent to the rest of the world. While it is documentary photography, the photojournalist has to remember it is not art photography - art photography is designed to evoke emotion. Selective focus of both the images and how they are edited is a significantly subjective addition to this horrific natural disaster. Many of the images are beautiful in a very poignantly painful way, but that does not make it necessarily right.

    -Meredith Norris

  15. I would like to comment on the entire article. First, I thank you for your thoughts and imput. With regard the the disaster in St. Croix, one of the closest friends in Durham actually relocated to the US because of the tragedy. Her mother sent her to the US with a group of people who were evacuating, she didn't really know them that well, however, she would later come to know them. She had no choice, she was alone. I overhear her on the phone with her mother occasionally and most of the time she seems sad. She wonders if it were really worth it, coming to the US...She still doesn't have the job she wants, without insurance,and with the current failing economy, the future still looks glim. She talks to her mother about things such as the island having only warm water not hot and that things aren't completely built up, but the hype has gone down and there are not as many people helping out the island any more...I also remember sitting in my mass communication/ journalism class when Katrina hit. It was quite a learning experience from the media perspective. We spent the entire semester analyzing and trying to figure out why the media portrayed caucasion residents as "being hungry and needing help" while the black residents were "looting and stealing, or part of a gang." After "he hype" wore down, I would later meet a friend from New Orleans and she explained how much rebuilding there needed to be still yet many of the people had forgotten and left. The point I am trying to make is that I hope the minute media buzz doesn't go away and people still remember to help Haiti. It takes more than a couple weeks or months to rebuild a city, it takes years. Ideally, people will remember that and continue to support.

    Tiffany T Smith

  16. GERMAINE ANTHONY AUSTINFebruary 1, 2010 at 9:28 AM

    This article was very informative. Uunfortunately it lacked the element of surprise. It saddened me to see the type of coverage Haiti was receiving during this devastating time. The media portrayed the Haitian people as savages living in a decaying community. The only coverage came from fights among the Haitian people, turmoil, hungry and weak hands lifted in the air, while the United States, Britain and others were portrayed as Haitian saviors. Yet, like the article suggests, "no coverage was given to the past invasions of Haiti and the cause of so much debt.

    Haiti was portrayed as a disorganized country of filth, and the media coverage pushed outside observers to feel the spirit of pity rather than the spirit of camaraderie. Haiti was feeling devastation before the earthquake, they needed a lot of assistance and support before this natural disaster. Yet, the only coverage they received then was coverage on civil unrest, criminal activity, and looting. No one banned together to help them, and the media never really portrayed them as a people who requires support but rather a deteriorating country near destruction, a country beyond helping. I saw this same negative publicity with Hurricane Katrina. When wilI we start holding the media accountable for the messages they broadcast when it's the media that educates and shapes the mind of the ignorant.

  17. Recently, a New Orleans man stated that he was amazed at how much our country has done for the people of Haiti but he was still amazed at how much has not been done for the people of New Orleans. Even more disgraceful, the media continues to portray Haitian victims as refugees and repeatedly refers to them as the poorest country in the world, in an effort to evoke pity and sympathy. I really enjoyed this article because it expanded my view at the outrage that continues to persist in Haiti and New Orleans. Maybe a win Sunday night in the Super Bowl will help the people of New Orleans to have a reason to smile again. Meanwhile, for the people of Haiti, we must not forget and continue our lives as if this disaster never occurred because so easily we become consumed in ourselves and lose focus of the less fortunate.

  18. Negative images of black men are normal. The stereotype of the "angry" black man/woman has almost become factual, rarely questioned. This stereotype has followed black people all over the globe. The sad part is that if it is discussed blacks are accused of playing the race card.