Disaster journalism then and now

I enjoy finding a good author and then going through his or her other work. This is especially true when that author introduces me to either a topic I otherwise wouldn’t have read about or when that author I respect presents a viewpoint that I disagree with.

And so I starting digging into the writings of M.R. O’Connor and came across her piece about disaster journalism in Haiti. It’s from 2010, which isn’t entirely before the smartphone and social media era, but those, along with 24-7 cable news, were in much attenuated forms compared to even five years later.

Some excerpts:

CNN’s twenty-four-hour coverage of the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake, which took an estimated 300,000 lives, doubled the network’s viewership. This coverage undoubtedly played a role in the America public’s response to the tragedy—one out of two Americans donated money to aid organizations. But little reporting has been done since then that asks how exactly that money is being spent, holds aid organizations accountable to their promises, or investigates the American government’s development and economic policies in the country. These policies, argues sociologist Alex Dupuy, have kept Haiti frozen in a destructive cycle of aid-dependence and exploitation for decades, stripping Haiti of its self-determination.

The longer American news outlets ignore these critical and complex issues, the easier it will become to view their occasional jaunts to Haiti with cynicism: it’s an convenient place to get B-roll of tragedy and disaster. Their coverage increases viewership, but without a moral component of responsibility towards Haitians themselves over the long-term, such coverage is basically exploitative. And over time, superficial reporting on Haiti’s problems—which plays a role in soliciting charitable donations from Americans-will arguably make the media culpable in the very system of aid-dependence and misguided development policies that help keep Haiti poor.

And this is why I find that I can’t really talk about Ukraine to non-Ukrainians. The country has been reduced to cable news b-roll and TikTok videos.

We don’t need the “disaster porn” to make the point that the Western nations that gave Ukraine security guarantees in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons, ought to be doing more.

In some ways the videos coming out of Dnipro muddy the otherwise crystal clear story: a notoriously inaccurate Russian cruise missile destroyed an apartment block not far from, and obviously in the flight path to a massive power plant. But I haven’t seen that mentioned much in the analysis. For the curious, the Prydniprovsk Power Plant was likely the target as the building destroyed was just across the Dnipro river.

A sober analysis shows that this isn’t some random tragedy. Much like the suffering in Haiti a dozen years ago had very clear causes and conditions, this is the result of premeditated actions that came about from causes and conditions — Europe burying its head in the sand after Crimea, no Western governments being able to refuse dirty Russian money, and the constant dithering on supplying Ukraine the weapons it needs to defend itself.

Let’s skip the b-roll disaster porn.