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My thoughts are with the Haitian people

Published January 14, 2010

by dbazely

From David Adam’s article about the CARMA International report, Western Media Coverage of Humanitarian Disasters, January 2006:

“The western media’s response to … humanitarian disasters is driven by “selfishness and egocentricity”…  Domestic politics, tourism and feel-good tales about western heroism and donations make a story… rather than human suffering.” The Guardian, 30 Jan. 2006

I had two thoughts yesterday morning, when I heard the CBC news reporting the devastating earthquake near Port-au-Prince. The first was about how limited the capacity of Haiti will be to respond to this disaster, given that it is one of poorest countries in the world. Haiti has one of the smallest per capita ecological footprints in the world, at just 0.5 ha per person. Compare this to a whopping 7.1 ha/person for the average Canadian. Yes, one average Canadian consumes the resources used by a total of 14 Haitians. I just shook my head in dismay at the ongoing suffering of the Haitian people, recalling their continuing political turmoil of the last decade, which included the US-backed removal of their elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide. And arguably, this history clearly plays a role in the suffering created by the impact of the earthquake.

My second thought was that because Canada’s Governer-General, Her Excellency Michaëlle Jean, is originally from Haiti, that the kind of self-interested Western media response to humanitarian crises, described in the CARMA International report, may not, for a change, happen here. What do I mean? Well, the media plays a major role in defining a disaster and  CARMA (who are global media analysts) analyzed how various natural and man-made disasters that resulted in high loss of life were being covered in the Western press. The report’s main conclusion was that “Western self-interest is the pre-condition for significant coverage of a humanitarian crisis”. It’s great to read the report directly, but David Adam’s article gives a good summary (Western media ‘underplay disasters in developing world’ in the Guardian Weekly, Feb 10-16 2006 p.27, and Crisis of Communications, The Guardian, Monday Jan 30 2006).

The report examined 2,000 articles from 64 daily and weekly publications from among  9 countries (including UK, USA and Australia, with emphasis on the European press). The newspaper coverage of 6 disasters was compared:
1. Earthquake in Pakistani-Kashmir
2. Indian Ocean Tsunami
3. Earthquake in Bam, Iran (2003)
4. Darfur, Sudan - a humanitarian crisis exacerbated by environmental degradation
5. Hurricane Katrina, USA
6. Hurricane Stan, Central America, especially Guatemala

Each article started with a 50 point score and points were subtracted depending on:

Headline, Placement in the paper, Portrayal of the situation and Evidence of bias. The articles scored were those published from 2 days before to 10 weeks after the disaster. Here’s what the report found: that there was “no link between the scale of a disaster and resulting media coverage”. For example, Hurricane Katrina received the highest media coverage (referred to 3,105 times in UK papers), while Hurricane Stan received the lowest media coverage (referred to, only 34 times in UK papers). But, both hurricanes killed over 1,000 people.

"The hurricane Stanley emergency stands out as the worst indictment of the selfish western approach to humanitarian disasters. There is no obvious significant economic or political interest. Consequently, there is virtually no coverage of any kind beyond the first few days." (CARMA International, 2006).

And to think, that Haiti was on my mind only a week ago, as I headed back to Toronto from a one-week cruise in the western Caribbean. During my trip, I had a number of interesting encounters with several of the many Haitian immigrants to Florida, including an adventure with a taxi driver who got lost between the port and the Amtrak station. This story was going to be in one of my forthcoming travel blogs about whether it’s possible to holiday with a low carbon footprint – but hey, CARMA, I get it, and I hope that other people do, too – it’s not about me and my recent chats with Haitians - IT’S ABOUT DOING SOMETHING, BOTH SHORT AND LONG-TERM, TO RELIEVE THE IMMEDIATE SUFFERING OF THE HAITIAN PEOPLE AND TO SERIOUSLY ADDRESS THEIR “POVERTY-DRIVEN LOW-LEVEL OF EARTHQUAKE PREPAREDNESS”!
Is it to much to ask every Canadian with an ecological footprint that is greater than 2 ha to reduce their footprint by 1/14th and to demand that the Federal Government  direct those resources to the average Haitian? Simplistic, yes, but worth reflecting on.

Dawn R. Bazely

Please note that the Ecological Footprint figures are from WWF Living Planet Report 2008.

Posted in: Blogs | IRIS Director Blog

4 thoughts on “My thoughts are with the Haitian people

  1. A very revealing, thoughtful blog about the media coverage of poor third world countries that do not contribute in any way to the western developed countries. I too sympathize with Haiti as we have supported Montreal based Solidarity-Haiti for years after being introduced to Benoit Begin and Helena Kelly (Ottawa-Gatineau Coordinators) by Fintan Kilbride (deceased and may his soul rest in peace). The area supported by Solidarity-Haiti is very near Port au Prince and I will contact our friends in Ottawa to ask what we could do to help. Yes, I hope with the high profile of our Governor General that our government will respond generously; I know the people of Canada are generous and will give from their hearts.

  2. Very interesting, as always. (I am putting a link to the IRIS blog on my blog.)

    >>“no link between the scale of a disaster and resulting media coverage”

    This, however, is not surprising at all. One of the first questions asked when determining the news value of a story is how much the matter in question affects the reader/viewership of that particular news outlet. Katrina got more coverage in the UK papers because their readers are more likely to have visited New Orleans or to know people there or even to have seen the city in movies. The degree of connection between the same audience and Central America is much lower. For the same reason, a murder/tornado/terrorist attack in Toronto will not receive the same coverage in Guatemalan media as a similar incident in Guatemala City.

    While this may be reflective of the disconnect between rich and poor nations, it is not evidence of a callous media judging the value of human life in terms of wealth; it is simply the value of a news story for its intended audience.

    Does that mean we should not care about people’s suffering if it does not affect us directly? Not at all. But the reality is that we care MORE when they do. The media know this.

  3. An amazing blog , with lot of information and knowledge . I m trying my best to reduce my footprint . It is very sad to see that the rich people are getting richer and the poor people are getting poorer . Canada has been helping the Haiti people and will always be. I just hope that the western people recognize how valuable the resources are and the importance of preserving as much as we can.