‘There’s nothing there:’ Bahamian reporters weather Dorian, and the international press

A relief plane departs on September 6, 2019 in Elbow Key Island, Bahamas. (Photo by Jose Jimenez/Getty Images)

Most Bahamians still get their news offline, from local papers and radio rather than international English-language media networks. So, as Hurricane Dorian approached the Abaco Islands earlier this month, Bahamian journalists felt an urgent duty to their readers. In the two weeks since the storm, journalists struggled to report with fewer resources and during phone outages and gas shortages. Nevertheless, they were able to share vital survival information, news of the islands’ plans to rebuild, and the painful rise of the death toll.

Then the international press arrived, and some local reporters felt their access start to slip. Deandre Williamson, a night editor with The Bahama Journal in Nassau, contacted CJR to discuss the problem. Here, in their own words, Williamson and other Bahamian journalists tell us of the reporting challenges they’ve faced in the wake of the storm.

 

Clint Watson

News Director, Eyewitness News

We’ve had no access issues reporting on the storm. Every story we’ve done is based on how people are impacted and how society has changed. Our duty is to the people of the Bahamas and the families affected. Communities have been changed forever.

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I went to Marsh Harbour just after the storm with the Progressive Liberal Party, the opposition. We spoke to people about why they chose to remain. Some wanted to help with the clean up, and for some it was just their home and they weren’t leaving. The stories that are hardest are stories of loss, loss of loved ones. I’m still getting over it, it’s very difficult to talk about. It’s an atomic bomb.

The main challenge is staying on it. It takes a lot out of you. It’s a continuing and evolving story, seven days a week. We pray a lot. I get five hours of sleep a night.

I feel every day I can make a difference. Somebody’s depending on me to be able to make informed decisions: how to move forward, where to get food, how to find loved ones that are missing, who’s passing out relief and assistance, how to ensure you treat your water. We cover it all.

The international coverage is not as accurate. Every station has an agenda, so they cover it from that angle. Even if they’re on the ground, they don’t have the connections or resources we have. Our message is: we’re still open for business. The Bahamas is an archipelago of islands. Two were devastated. The rest are open for business. 

 

Jared Higgs

Broadcast Reporter, “Our News” and the Nassau Guardian

I went to Marsh Harbour four or five days after the storm moved past. I was able to fly in to Sandy Point, a 60-mile drive to Marsh Harbour, and then I caught a ride with a couple of customs officers. I was lucky to get that ride. They told me at the time, you’re not going to be able to get a ride back. Everybody is looking out for themselves over there. In Marsh Harbour, somebody charged us $50 for a five-minute ride.

The most shocking thing was that there were so many dead bodies that had not been collected yet. People were putting up “rest in peace” Facebook posts for the deceased, but as a journalist I’m not going to report on deaths until I know for certain. I needed more proof. Some people told me that they could show me where the bodies were. We walked 10 minutes from the government clinic in Marsh Harbor to the Pigeon Peas migrant village, and I was shown the bodies of three men. One was pinned under a home. The others were just lying among the rubble. 

I was told I could be taken to where one man’s mother was as well. She was also dead. I did not accept that offer. I’m a news reporter and I cover a lot of crime, especially gun homicides, in Nassau. I’d never seen a body that had just been left though. The smell was like a sign that says, City limits, Marsh Harbour. That was when I knew we were close. 

Hurricane Dorian is probably the biggest story that Bahamian journalists will ever cover. And we are outnumbered by the international press. We’re a small country with limited resources, whereas the BBC or ABC can send a team of five: two cameramen, two producers. I’m going on assignment with my cameraman, and he was very anxious about being able to leave Marsh Harbour. You’re responsible for yourself, there’s not some big company behind you. Therefore I think that we as journalists take a lot more risk. 

We probably do feel that government officials are providing information to the international press more readily. Last Friday night, I was waiting to go on a live phone interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, and she says, Just in: the office of the prime minister has confirmed that the death toll is now 43. She had updated information that I didn’t have—I got a statement about an hour later.

Before the storm even arrived, I was at a NEMA press briefing. The whole local press corps was waiting to get interviews with the ministers, and they let the NBC people take our minister of tourism outside for an exclusive. The Bahamas needs all the help with its economy it can get right now, including letting the local media break Bahamian news.

 

Reporter Berthony McDermott interviews Dionisio D’Aguilar, the Bahamian Minister of Tourism and Aviation. (Photo courtesy of Berthony McDermott)

Berthony McDermott

Reporter, Jones Communication Network

The official death toll now is 51. But people on the ground say that hundreds died. One of the former prime ministers said that after he went through. It’s not 50 people—hundreds or thousands have died. But I don’t know what the process is for making the count.

Officials gave the international press a little more access. I don’t know if it was intentional. But at one NEMA briefing, I told the Minister of Tourism that I wanted to do an interview with him afterwards. Another reporter said that she had told him the same. When the press conference ended, we were waiting for him to come out, and the communications director of the Office of the Prime Minister walked out with him and took him straight outside to MSNBC. We followed, and they said, “No local media, please wait. MSNBC wants to do an exclusive interview with the minister.”

I felt very much insulted. I felt like I was being pushed to the side, when we are the ones reporting the stories for our people. Local media has the upper hand in getting announcements, and knowing people on the ground. This is our environment. I felt like we were disregarded and taken for granted. 

I have seen the international media report a few inaccurate things. They said that NEMA requested that people on the islands who were affected by the storm go online and fill out a form. That’s not what NEMA said—they know that if you’re on the island you don’t have access. It was for people who are missing relatives. If you have loved ones that are missing, fill in the form with their name so they can look for them.  

 

Deandre Williamson

Print Journalist, The Bahama Journal

Local reporters will say exactly where a storm hits. We say it happened in Abaco, in Marsh Harbour and the settlement, and which parts of Grand Bahama were affected. In the international press, though, they just say “The Bahamas.” The Bahamas is made up of so many islands, and only two islands were affected.

Locally, we’ve been reporting where to get shelter, medical care, food, where to get relief, how relief is coming into the islands. We let readers know how they can help from Nassau. Also the death toll. We sent a team to Abaco and a team of Grand Bahama. We were invited to go back, but the news director said the scent of bodies was so strong that she does not want to send the team back again. 

The US media now is focusing on immigration. I noticed stories about Bahamians going over there and how the US government is not going to allow them temporary status. So the US news is localizing the story for themselves. Today at a press conference in Nassau a Washington Post reporter asked about the relationship between Haitians and Bahamians. This is because Trump said he doesn’t want more Haitians in the United States, and accused Haitians in the Bahamas of trying to illegally come to the US as hurricane victims. 

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Amanda Darrach is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @thedarrach.