Early Earthquake Coverage Roundup

News outlets cover the Haitian earthquake without actually being in Haiti

Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti poses a vexing question for journalists and readers everywhere: If a disaster happens in an under-reported third world country, and there are only a couple of reporters on hand to document it, does it make a noise?

Of course, the reverberations from the Haiti earthquake have been felt in headlines rippling across the globe. There is no shortage of articles about the disaster. But most of those stories quote bureaucrats, aid workers and worried family members removed from the scene. Very few include any eyewitness accounts of the destruction on the ground—for the simple reason that, until recently, there were only two full-time foreign correspondents in the country.

Jonah Engle, who spent three months this summer as a reporter in Port-au-Prince for the weekly Brooklyn-based Haitian Times, said that his departure in the fall left the Associated Press’s Jonathan M. Katz as the only foreign correspondent on the ground there. Haitian born reporters Joseph Guyler Delva for Reuters and Clarens Renois for Agence-France-Presse, rounded out the rest of the journalistic pack in town, Engle said. (Full disclosure: Engle is a former classmate of mine from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.)

Besides live Twitter updates from eyewitnesses on the scene, Katz’s and Delva’s coverage has been second to none for boots-on-the-ground coverage. Excerpts like these, from Katz’s Wednesday report on conditions on the ground, give some of the first on-the-ground description of the devastation:

People pulled bodies from collapsed homes, covering them with sheets by the side of the road. Passers-by lifted the sheets to see if loved ones were underneath. Outside a crumbled building, the bodies of five children and three adults lay in a pile.

And Delva co-wrote this grim dispatch:

People sobbed in the streets of Port-au-Prince and voices cried out from the rubble.
”Please take me out, I am dying. I have two children with me,” a woman told a Reuters journalist from under a collapsed kindergarten in the Canape-Vert area of the capital.

Here’s how some news outlets first dealt with covering a major world news event in a place where there is almost no news coverage:

Without their own eyes on the ground, some simply quoted CNN coverage. Others consulted earthquake experts for information about the likely extent of damage. Many, like The New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Los Angeles Times did the best they could with correspondents based in Mexico City, the Dominican Republic, and Florida. This Christian Science Monitor dispatch focused on the inevitable humanitarian relief effort:

Reporting from Mexico City - Even as rescuers hunted for survivors in the shattered landscape of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, the world geared up for a major humanitarian effort in the wake of the earthquake that devastated the small Caribbean nation on Tuesday, felling buildings and causing untold casualties.

Many outlets took the local angle, speaking to local Haitian-Americans anxious for news of their loved ones. A small handful were actually able to snag eyewitnesses. The Palm Beach Post found a local man who was on the last flight out of Haiti. They met him at the Miami International Airport to hear his account of experiencing the quake:

Jocelyn Valcin, 32, of Boynton Beach was in the waiting area of the Port-Au-Prince airport preparing to board the last American Airlines plane of the day out of Haiti, Flight 1908, when he felt a large shock.

“It felt like a plane had hit the building, that’s how strong it was,” he said as he emerged from customs at Miami International Airport Tuesday night about 9:15 p.m. “But it turned out to be an earthquake.”

He said passengers panicked.

And, finally, others simply wrote about the frustration people felt at being unable to learn much information. Here is the Haitian Times, which until recently had Engle on the ground, with the honest headline “Earthquake Hits Haiti, Community Feels Powerless.”

The suspense is sending a chill as people try to imagine the extent of this catastrophe.

The picture should become clearer as more foreign correspondents flood into the country — The New York Times and other papers finally made it into Port-au-Prince Wednesday afternoon. We’ll be watching for their dispatches.

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Alexandra Fenwick is an assistant editor at CJR.