While I was reporting in Haiti last year, over the course of a few months, the Port-au-Prince guesthouse where I often stayed—once the dominion of grassroots activists disdainful of reporters—was gradually overrun by journalists. The Internet slowed, beer sales climbed, and a long wooden table on the terrace piled up with laptops and cameras, audio gear and hard drives. When three Dutch newcomers arrived on a government grant to teach reporting skills, it took on the look of a full-on journalism school: the spartan living room filled each day with aspiring Haitian reporters who gathered around the bright glow of new iMac computers to learn video editing; even as cholera spread and riots erupted, the students were grilled on ethical questions and journalistic ideals.

One night in December, while enjoying a quiet dinner on the terrace, a simmering tension boiled over. One of the instructors, a print reporter, argued that the most important thing they could do for Haitian journalists was to impart the standards and ethics of objective reporting; the other, a documentary filmmaker, argued what their students needed most was technical skills or they’d never find work in journalism to begin with.

Their raised voices aired a critical question in a country where no amount of high-minded idealism about the power of a free press can make up for the bleak economic realities: Haiti needs pragmatism and idealism in equal measure.

A robust Haitian media would be invaluable to the nation building effort underway following the January 2010 earthquake. Watchdog reporters could press for accountability in how the $9 billion pledged for reconstruction (not only from the government, but by the agencies and donors who have made Haiti known as “the Republic of ngos”) is spent. That idealized press would also foster a more democratic public sphere, giving voice to average Haitians—the vast majority being poor, illiterate, and politically marginalized. Towards that goal, the country has become the proving ground for contested theories on whether ngo-driven media development is a worthwhile venture, and if so, how it should be done.

The reporting that is needed would have been a challenge even for Haiti’s pre-quake media, which, like everything else, was devastated. Over thirty journalists were killed, at least thirteen wounded. Infrastructure and equipment was damaged or destroyed at a majority of the media organizations in the four hardest-hit cities. Worse, the earthquake shut down many businesses, sapping ad revenues just as the prices of intact buildings skyrocketed along with energy costs.

Before the disaster, educated Haitians had several French-language dailies from which to choose (French is used in the courts and in the predominately-private school system, but is spoken by less than ten percent of the population—a privileged readership*). Because roughly half of Haitians are illiterate, the dominant news source was Creole-language radio stations.

Brain drain, low expectations, and lack of funding has long hobbled Haitian journalism. As in many developing countries, reporters often accept payment from sources in exchange for favorable coverage. “Sometimes you have to keep an eye on that,” admitted Mario Viau, managing director of Haiti’s Signal FM radio station. “But sometimes you have to close one eye on the subject because you know they have to get by.”

The 2000 assassination of Jean Dominique, the co-founder of Radio Haiti-Inter who was known for his morning editorials on corruption scandals involving powerful political and business figures, still haunts the country’s press, according to Jean Roland Chery, a former reporter for the network. Dominique is remembered as a martyr whose conviction in the potential of an independent Haitian press inspired a new generation of journalists who now struggle with limited resources. “We won the freedom of the press. People were killed for freedom of the press,” said Michèle Montas, Dominique’s widow. “But at least we had the money to do it.”

After the quake, Chery returned from his work as a Brooklyn newspaper deliveryman to train journalists in Haiti. He found a proliferation of new radio stations and web outlets, but observed that fearful reporters still turned a blind eye to red line issues like kidnapping, embezzlement, and trafficking in guns and drugs. Chery believes that Dominique’s legacy, though inspirational, is also a grim reminder of what can happen to reporters who push too hard; his death was a message, a public execution for which justice was never served. “That means,” he said, “at any time they can redo that crime to anybody else.”

“Press freedom is huge here and everybody says what he wants,” said Georges Michel, a veteran reporter at the French language newspaper, Le Nouvelliste. “We don’t have state terror cracking down on journalists anymore. We may have one of us being shot from time to time. But this happens everywhere. . . . That doesn’t stop the living ones to continue working.”

William Wheeler has written for USA Today, Good magazine, Foreign Affairs, and The Christian Science Monitor. His travel to Haiti was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.