Some of the scenes inevitably have been borderline pornography, exploiting human suffering without any sense of the privacy of or permission from those suffering. While the media will always present the most shocking photos, at least this will induce the US and other governments to respond quickly and the American public generously. As the trickle of relief operations commences, I hope the news media will give us examples of heroism, to be sure—but also that they will tell Haiti’s story in a way that illustrates the tragedy there without indulging in the voyeurism of human suffering.
But overall, and in the long run, journalists ought to focus on assessing the quality of the humanitarian relief response to the earthquake. Events like 2004’s Asian tsunami have arguably received a disproportionate amount of attention—which, while that led (beneficially) to a philanthropic focus on them, also led (detrimentally) to fundraising challenges for other, less well-publicized disasters. And while the emergency response to Haiti’s current tragedy must continue to rely on the NGOs’ parallel state, coordinated through the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), at a certain point, the dysfunctional Haitian state has to learn to provide education, health, and other basic services. Not to mention basic public goods like security and the rule of law.
If Haiti continues to be a charity ward based on NGOs who are accountable to the international donors and charities, but not to Haitians themselves, Haiti’s citizens will never be able to develop their own state institutions. While the immediate priority now has to be, of course, the survival of the quakes many victims, in the long run, Haitians need to become participants in their own development, rather than stigmatized recipients of charity. And the immense challenge of realizing that goal should be the context in which journalists tell Haiti’s story.