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.”

Information spreads quickly around Haiti, through the famed “telejole” circuit—word of mouth—and the radio. But incisive and credible news is harder to come by. One scorching afternoon last summer, I was interviewing people made homeless by the earthquake in a relocation camp outside the capital. Jean Roosevelt, a former journalist (often a loosely defined profession) who was working as a politician’s spokesman when the quake struck, said that conditions in the camp had been inexplicably getting worse: the government cut off food distribution, and the shelters promised by humanitarian agencies had yet to appear. His friend, Franklin Duperval, was fanning himself with a publication someone had distributed in the camp. On its cover was a story about a recent storm that stripped away several hundred tents in the camp, and another about the recovery commission—co-chaired by Bill Clinton—responsible for approving reconstruction projects. Neither had heard anything about the commission or its plans.

“We have no information, just this,” said Roosevelt, pointing to the newspaper, which I knew was published by a group of spirited young journalists trying to provide the information Roosevelt wanted. But neither man had heard of the paper before. Suspicious both of politicians and the press, they assumed it was just a political ploy. “We never see journalists here,” said Duperval. “We’ve been abandoned. We are nearing an election. People lie, and we’re afraid to be manipulated by politicians.”

There’s an opportunity for journalists to contribute to Haiti’s “cultural reconstruction,” said Robert Shaw, who consulted on International Media Support (IMS) development projects there. But it’s a long-term project, limited by low expectations and resources. Traveling around the rubble-strewn capital is costly enough, and reporting in the countryside is even more so. Well-budgeted outlets are few and far between, said Shaw, and much of their ad revenue is tied to authorities unlikely to be eager about muckrakers. One daily, Le Matin, has become a weekly. Michel said he and others at Le Nouveliste are taking four month rotating furloughs.

Nongovernmental organizations like the UN and Internews offer survivors basic, useful, information, but do not build the foundation of a sustainable independent press. Meanwhile, Haitian reporters are tasked with untangling an immensely complicated reconstruction process that, despite billions of dollars pledged, has shown little visible sign of progress. “We hear about conferences, meetings, seminars, but we see very little being done,” said Michel. His role as a journalist, he said, is to cover the continued plight of the displaced, and to uncover what the government and foreign NGOs are doing about it.

In order to stay in business to cover the challenging story of their country’s reconstruction, Haitian media outlets must find ways to diversify their income while raising the bar in a media culture unaccustomed to “journalism that goes beyond the day-to-day,” according to Shaw.

Incisive and ethical reporting is the end goal. But to reach that goal, media development organizations can’t ignore the financial realities, according to Silvio Waisbord, a professor in the School of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. Waisbord taught health journalism workshops around Latin America for a decade, covering the basics of health policy, the importance of using multiple sources, and doing more than simply reprinting press releases from the local ministry of health. Reporters left the workshops with a better grasp of the ideal, he said, but no clearer idea about how to achieve it. “At the end of the day, you go back to doing the job you’re expected to do with the resources you have,” Waisbord said. He worried that all he had produced was more frustrated journalists.

“In many countries, the issue is really business management,” he said. “How do you run a successful media organization? How do you handle advertising? Incorporate new online platforms? Structure your business efficiently? Once upon a time, we probably had a better sense of how to get it done in this country.” Many developing-world press freedom enthusiasts, he said, tend to overlook the business side of the media, promoting a lofty conception of journalism without regard for its effects. For decades, Western donors have poured money into media development assistance abroad—most notably in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union—without measuring its impact.

But a 2009 report from a team led by Anya Schiffrin, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, tried to do just that, and could prove instructive as such efforts unfold in Haiti. Her research team interviewed dozens of African editors and reporters and found that after journalism training reporters used less jargon and exhibited more independent analysis, balance, appropriate sourcing, and improved story structure. In the long run, Schiffrin concludes that educational and legal reforms would be critical, but that there could also be more immediate benefits to supporting journalism networks with a common goal.*

To teach such lessons in Haiti, Shaw helped build a coalition of independent journalists, including partnerships with a reporters’ association (AJH), the news agency Groupe Medialternatif, the watchdog-journalism collaborative Haiti Grassroots Watch, and others. An AJH consortium ran trainings to prepare for last year’s elections, and set up two press centers in the provinces, allowing local journalists to work together away from the government and UN facilities on which many rely. There are plans to open another two press centers and to partner with universities to support journalism education and investigative skills training. Through IMS’s side company, Media Frontiers, they are also experimenting with an advertising network called Protore, which sells geo-targeted advertising—ads aimed at wealthier diaspora communities identified by their foreign IP addresses—to boost revenues for media outlets in developing countries.*

Besides IMS, Shaw said there aren’t many long term media development organizations in Haiti right now. But feeling alone isn’t unusual now that most of the international media is long gone. Shaw pointed to a litany of challenges Haitian journalists have faced out of the world’s spotlight: political turmoil in the countryside, the arson attack on a community radio stations, and a threatening remark that President Michel Martelly leveled at a journalist during a televised press conference in March, before he took office. “I think it guarantees the media sector will come under fire. At the same time,” he said, “there are opportunities, as people have been saying, to try and do something new. And I think the media needs to be positively critical, rather than easily cynical.”

Of course, that would be easier with more for Haitians and Haitian journalists to be positive about. “If we had more actual reconstruction, we would have more things to cover,” said Georges Michel of Le Nouvelliste. “We are workers in the kitchen . . . the ovens are burning, but we are still waiting for the ingredients.”


UPDATE, 8/16: Due to an editor’s error, a near-final draft of this article was originally published. That version contained several errors, including its descriptions of Robert Shaw’s relationship to the coalition of journalism organizations that includes Haiti Grassroots Watch, the members of the coalition, and who administered the election coverage trainings. The earlier version also imprecisely described the number of Haitians who speak French. The errors have been corrected, and further information about Anya Schiffrin’s conclusions has been added. We regret the error.

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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.