Journalists might be doing more harm than good in Haiti, suggests Noam Scheiber in a polemical piece published yesterday in the New Republic. While many journalists initially struggled to get to Haiti amid the chaos, nearly all major news outlets have a presence in Port-au-Prince by now. The New York Times and Washington Post each have ten staff in the country, not to mention CNN and CBS with their fifty-person production crews.
In some ways, he feels the mere presence of the media is hindering the rescue efforts they came to report. An excess of news staff puts an unfair burden on the country's already meager resources, with reporters "mooching off supplies intended for earthquake victims." On top of that, he dismisses the bulk of the news reported back as "redundant."
Citing mostly anecdotal evidence, he points to CBS chartering a plane to get Katie Couric to Haiti from the Dominican Republic and an MSNBC reporter getting 10 gallons of oil as a donation from the Marines. As the Boston Globe reported, the cost of essential items like flashlights, batteries, and water has risen sharply over the past week,
"Given the sheer number of reporters descending on the country, and the earthquake's toll on its already substandard infrastructure, it's hard to believe the reporters aren't at least delaying the arrival of relief workers and supplies" says Scheiber.
He feels journalists have a "Hippocratic-like obligation" to report stories without doing any harm. Medical correspondents especially have struggled to balance their roles as journalists and doctors. CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta and NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman have both operated on injured Haitians in medical clinics, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.
"I think it's very hard for an individual who is professionally and emotionally engaged in saving lives to be able to simultaneously step back from the medical work and practice independent journalistic truth-telling," said Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute.
Scheiber on the other hand is not arguing that journalists are anything but obligated to report from Haiti. "I'm idealistic enough to think the overwhelming majority of my colleagues are there for mostly noble reasons," he writes. Clearly, their job is an important one. He seems to feel there are simply too many of them.
As an alternative, Scheiber proposes a "disaster pool" to cover stories like the Haiti Earthquake in the future. News organizations could draft an agreement that would send certain journalists to disaster zones to file a "pool report" with information all the organizations can share, similar to the one used at White House press conferences.
Haiti, however, is not the White House. Such a pool simply isn't feasible today, but that's hardly the point. Scheiber seems to wants a discussion of ethics and journalism back into the public forum. Let the debate begin.