Schwartz arrived at our meeting in Port au Prince on his motorcycle, full of enthusiasm to talk about the report and the issues it raises. I couldn’t help but think he had the fatigued look of a lone crusader. Schwartz has been called a “liar” and a “despicable vampire” online by people who believe the report hurt Haitians. “People will die because of this criminal’s report,” wrote Michael Collins on his popular website, Haitian-Truth.org. Schwartz’s reputation as a virulent aid-hater in a country where foreign assistance makes up at least half the national budget and there are hundreds of aid groups operating has only solidified since May.
Schwartz expressed frustration that the issues the report raises have been seemingly buried in order to serve what he sees as the interests of the development community in Haiti. And the media? “The press is perhaps even more guilty than the aid groups,” he said.
After the report was leaked in May, the Associated Press, The New York Times, the BBC, and NPR each reported on the story, if somewhat cursorily. Foreign Policy published a piece by David Rieff which argued that while it is understandable that NGOs, governments, and the UN feel they must exaggerate crises in order to attract attention and money, “we are raising the bar to impossible heights. At this rate, the 46,000 to 85,000 Haitians Schwartz estimates to have died in the earthquake will seem too small a number to really command the attention of donors and the general public in the developed world.”
Since this initial spate of media attention, journalists have continued to report the Haitian government’s death toll of 316,000. In December, both a New York Times story and an AP story used 300,000 without citing the Haitian government as the source of their information. (In November 2010, I myself used the 300,000 number in a story for CJR.)
Arguably, the most meaningful contribution to the coverage to date didn’t come from a journalist. In July 2011, the Los Angeles Times published an opinion piece written by the two authors of the study published in Medicine, Conflict and Survival in October 2010. Robert Muggah and Athena Kolbe gave a systematic explanation for why they believed Schwartz’s numbers to be an underestimate (the two authors pegged the death toll at 158,000) but made a succinct argument for why accuracy matters:
The science of measuring mortality and morbidity is controversial. There are bitter disputes among groups of researchers who study death tolls in the world’s hot spots. Many governments would also prefer to discreetly avoid any discussion of the civilian costs of war. Yet the numbers matter. They can influence political responses to armed conflicts, famines and natural disasters. Statistics are routinely used to draw attention to evidence of systematic human rights violations and even genocide.
In Haiti, they wrote, the risk is that those wishing to justify reductions in aid will advocate lower figures, while Haitian officials and relief groups will advocate higher ones. Somewhere in between, the truth—and perhaps a better response to the tragedy of the earthquake—has been lost.
Correction: The original headline to this piece was “One Year Later, Haitian Earthquake Death Toll in Dispute.” Of course, the earthquake happened two years ago, not one year ago. The headline has been fixed. CJR regrets the error.