WERE THE JOURNALISTS RESPONSIBLE?
January 12th 2011 is a grim anniversary. It is a year since the Haiti earthquake which killed in excess of 200,000 and left over one million homeless in the .The world, alerted by some cracking television reporting opened up its wallets and in a short time the DEC raised £100 million plus for Earthquake relief. Six months later and the Pakistan Floods affected many more and a much bigger area yet the DEC struggled to raise half that amount. Pakistan too was saturated in TV news coverage. Why the shortfall? What difference does journalism make in the unleashing(or not)of compassion? Writes John Mair…
Haiti was a dream story about a nightmare. Already one of the poorest countries in the world hit by a huge earthquake, the biggest there for two centuries. Lives, homes and families destroyed. The stories were literally out on the street for all to see. The British network news sent their best and brightest journalistic troops (fortunately Port au Prince is a short plane hop from Miami).They excelled. I have just reviewed much of the output and items from all five news channels on Haiti(and Pakistan). The story finding was superb-the husband seeking and finding his wife in the rubble of a building then driving her away in their car ,the sick old people whose hospital was a street, the women forced to give birth as and when and where. The story telling good-personal, close up stories, all real people in a very unreal situation-and, usually, well packaged and put together. Some had a ‘happy’ ending, most did not. The big TV news names were sent out there-Snow, Neely, Crawford, Ramsay, Guerin, Irvine and more. They, by and large, delivered and they were rewarded with a huge public outpouring of sympathy and money for Haiti. The DEC was overwhelmed.
Pakistan turned into a nightmare story about a nightmare. The floods which started in late july 2010 went on for a month and longer. Thousands were killed, many left stranded literally on an island in the sea of floods that covered Pakistan. Seventeen million acres of arable land were under water. The misery seemed endless. The Pakistan government, by design or accident, hapless. The British TV news coverage was again blanket. Some of the same correspondents who had done Haiti- Stuart Ramsay and Orla Guerin back on home territory. But the product and the compassion effect was very different. Much of the reporting ,by necessity, was not on the ground but from the air courtesy of the Pakistan Army and other rescue forces. It,l iterally, looked down on the victims. It rarely got up close with them and told their tales of woe. Some of this may have been time constraints-in and out of the helicopter, some the result of a much more closed and patriarchal society than Haiti. Good stories of individuals were not followed up in pieces. Reporters also tried to contextualise, maybe a bit too much.The Pakistan President, Asif Ali Zardari was seemingly making whoopee in Europe whilst his people went under. That became a trope of the flood story. As did the ongoing AfPak war and its relationship to the floods. Journos strained to show how the previously Taliban controlled Swat valley would be affected by the floods. Usually, they failed.
The result was that the doors of Western compassion did not open up to the Pakistani flood victims. Western agencies were having to use crowbars to open up the wallets of the giving. There were no PakAid singles and few school concerts and collections this time round.The Pakistan appeal may have failed for any number of reasons-racism, the ’image deficit’ of Pakistan in the rest of the world including Western fears of Pakistan and Afghan jihadists, ’compassion fatigue’ after the trauma of Haiti and the triumph of fundraising for that and much more .But could one of the more cogent reasons been simply that the television reporting was not as good, not as direct and personal there as it had been in Haiti. It was out there rather than in here-in the heart-for too many viewers. Do reporters and cracking journalism make a difference to perceptions of a natural disaster and to the public response?
2010 and the Haiti/Pakistan stories and the arithmetic of compassion would certainly seem to show that.
WITH THANKS TO BBC.CO.UK/JOURNALISM WHERE THIS WILL BE PUBLISHED
John Mair is a senior lecturer in broadcasting at Coventry University.He invented and runs the Coventry Conversations(www.coventry.ac.uk/coventryconversations). He was a producer in the BBC,ITV and Channel Four.He is an RTS Journalism Award winner .