Haiti correspondent details aid-money corruption, media clichés in new book on earthquake coverage

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  • February 5, 2013

By Nathan Frandino*

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The 7.0-magnitude earthquake that struck Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2010 nearly killed then-Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz. He was on the second floor of his home and bureau when the walls and floors buckled, collapsing under him.

The first thing he did, after emerging from the dust, was race up to a nearby hotel and look for a phone.

“The main thing was, ‘oh s**t, something happened, get a phone.’ Because that was my whole life,” Katz said in a recent interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas.

Katz found a man with a BlackBerry that actually worked and thus began the narrative that Katz would detail in his new book, “The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster,” published in January.

Katz was the only American correspondent based in Haiti at the time and witnessed firsthand the devastation that left anywhere from 46,190 to 316,000 dead—the numbers fluctuate depending on the source—and more than 1.5 million displaced.

In the book, Katz goes after the influx of aid money, which at one point reached $16.3 billion in pledged donations, and the subsequent failure of nongovernmental organizations, the United States, the United Nations and the Haitian government to rebuild the country.

On a more personal level, the correspondent also sought to debunk the clichés used in post-disaster coverage by the international media and show how he followed basic journalistic principles to cover the aid and cholera stories.

While dozens of correspondents parachuted into Haiti to cover the earthquake, their coverage focused mostly on the immediate rescue efforts. It was also during this time that on Port-au-Prince’s Grand Rue, reports of looting attracted floods of journalists who used the chaos to shape their stories. An image soon circulated of a 15-year-old girl shot by police because she had reportedly stolen paintings from a store.

Although there were only few isolated incidents, Katz reported, the media capitalized on it.

“All of a sudden, these two blocks stand in for not only the entire city but the entire country and the violence stands in for the kind of Hobbesian chaos where people are turning on one another,” he said.

When the AP team arrived in Léogâne, a town nine miles from the earthquake’s epicenter, men stood “on guard for bands of looters they heard were running wild in the capital.”

The international coverage also irked Garry Pierre-Pierre, founder and publisher of online news magazine The Haitian Times. He said the international media failed to report the human element.

“By in large, I thought the coverage was about the Tarzan symptom where it was about the white rescuers rather than the native’s plight,” Pierre-Pierre told the Knight Center. “To me, it’s lazy journalism more than anything else. If you’re a reporter and you’re sent to cover a story like this, that was a factor that was missing.”

During his time in Haiti, Pierre-Pierre slept on the streets as part of his coverage and even went to makeshift churches on the Sunday after the quake where Haitians were trying to regain a sense of normalcy.

This return to normalcy proved difficult for Katz as well. In addition to being a reporter, he was also a survivor.

During the first of many long hours trekking through the city buried in death and destruction, Katz’ main objective was finding a phone, an Internet connection and color for the story. At the same time, he couldn’t always stand back with a pen and pad as Haitians were roaming the streets and trying to save the injured. In the book, he references trying to help a group of men move blocks of rubble. They quickly found that without the tools, it was impossible. He and his fixer Evens Sanon left the scene to continue reporting.

“We’d help when we could, we would go try to pick up Evens’ people, if we had to move them from one place to another,” Katz said. “In a situation like that, you revert to your training and my training is a reporter. I really did think it was important. Being a journalist is an extremely important job, especially in a crisis, and my important function was to execute that role.”

After the cavalry of international media left the island, it was up to correspondents like Katz and Pierre-Pierre to follow up. For Katz, this meant following the money.

Reports soon followed that detailed the corruption among the NGOs, which up until a certain point the frustration over stalled reconstruction had been aimed at the government of President René Préval. It was another story that Pierre-Pierre believed the international media had missed completely.

“It was once a testament to the weakness of the government,” Pierre-Pierre said. “People were coming in and basically doing as they pleased without any oversight. At the same time you don’t hear the same drumbeat about the corruption of the NGOs.”

Getting to the bottom of these stories meant getting rid of everything you thought you knew about foreign aid and starting from the beginning, Katz said.

“What it really comes down to, and this is the real journalistic principle, we have to follow is presume your own ignorance,” Katz said. “When you come into a situation no matter what the situation and you have to cover it, try to find out what is actually going on and not what you think is going on.”

*Nathan Frandino is a freelance journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @NathanFrandino

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.