Covering Haiti: When the Media Is the Disaster

Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin:
ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far
more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit
further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for
property. They act without regard for consequences.

Soon after almost every disaster the crimes begin:
ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human suffering, and generating far
more suffering. The perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit
further crimes against humanity. They care less for human life than for
property. They act without regard for consequences.

I'm talking, of course, about those members of the mass media whose
misrepresentation of what goes on in disaster often abets and justifies
a second wave of disaster. I'm talking about the treatment of
sufferers as criminals, both on the ground and in the news, and the
endorsement of a shift of resources from rescue to property patrol.
They still have blood on their hands from Hurricane Katrina, and they
are staining themselves anew in Haiti.

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for example, the Los Angeles Times ran a series of photographs with captions
that kept deploying the word "looting." One was of a man lying face
down on the ground with this caption: "A Haitian police officer ties up
a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk." The
man's sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.

Another photo was labeled: "Looting continued in Haiti on the third
day after the earthquake, although there were more police in downtown
Port-au-Prince." It showed a somber crowd wandering amid shattered
piles of concrete in a landscape where, visibly, there could be little
worth taking anyway.

A third image was captioned: "A looter makes off with rolls of
fabric from an earthquake-wrecked store." Yet another: "The body of a
police officer lies in a Port-au-Prince street. He was accidentally
shot by fellow police who mistook him for a looter."

People were then still trapped alive in the rubble. A translator for Australian TV dug out a toddler
who'd survived 68 hours without food or water, orphaned but claimed by
an uncle who had lost his pregnant wife. Others were hideously wounded
and awaiting medical attention that wasn't arriving. Hundreds of
thousands, maybe millions, needed, and still need, water, food,
shelter, and first aid. The media in disaster bifurcates. Some step out
of their usual "objective" roles to respond with kindness and practical
aid. Others bring out the arsenal of cliches and pernicious myths and
begin to assault the survivors all over again.

The "looter" in the first photo might well have been taking that
milk to starving children and babies, but for the news media that
wasn't the most urgent problem. The "looter" stooped under the weight
of two big bolts of fabric might well have been bringing it to now
homeless people trying to shelter from a fierce tropical sun under
improvised tents.

The pictures do convey desperation, but they don't convey
crime. Except perhaps for that shooting of a fellow police officer --
his colleagues were so focused on property that they were reckless when
it came to human life, and a man died for no good reason in a landscape
already saturated with death.

In recent days, there have been scattered accounts of confrontations
involving weapons, and these may be a different matter. But the man
with the powdered milk? Is he really a criminal? There may be more to
know, but with what I've seen I'm not convinced.

What Would You Do?

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your
home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days
ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any
power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any
storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The
economy has ceased to exist.

By day three, you're pretty hungry and the water you grabbed on your
way out of your house is gone. The thirst is far worse than the hunger.
You can go for many days without food, but not water. And in the
improvised encampment you settle in, there is an old man near you who
seems on the edge of death. He no longer responds when you try to
reassure him that this ordeal will surely end. Toddlers are now crying
constantly, and their mothers infinitely stressed and distressed.

you go out to see if any relief organization has finally arrived to
distribute anything, only to realize that there are a million others
like you stranded with nothing, and there isn't likely to be anywhere
near enough aid anytime soon. The guy with the corner store has already
given away all his goods to the neighbors. That supply's long gone by
now. No wonder, when you see the chain pharmacy with the shattered
windows or the supermarket, you don't think twice before grabbing a box
of PowerBars and a few gallons of water that might keep you alive and
help you save a few lives as well.

The old man might not die, the babies might stop their squalling,
and the mothers might lose that look on their faces. Other people are
calmly wandering in and helping themselves, too. Maybe they're people
like you, and that gallon of milk the fellow near you has taken is
going to spoil soon anyway. You haven't shoplifted since you were 14,
and you have plenty of money to your name. But it doesn't mean anything

If you grab that stuff are you a criminal? Should you end up lying
in the dirt on your stomach with a cop tying your hands behind your
back? Should you end up labeled a looter in the international media?
Should you be shot down in the street, since the overreaction in
disaster, almost any disaster, often includes the imposition of the death penalty without benefit of trial for suspected minor property crimes?

Or are you a rescuer? Is the survival of disaster victims more
important than the preservation of everyday property relations? Is that
chain pharmacy more vulnerable, more a victim, more in need of help
from the National Guard than you are, or those crying kids, or the
thousands still trapped in buildings and soon to die?

It's pretty obvious what my answers to these questions are, but it
isn't obvious to the mass media. And in disaster after disaster, at
least since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, those in power, those
with guns and the force of law behind them, are too often more
concerned for property than human life. In an emergency, people can,
and do, die from those priorities. Or they get gunned down for minor
thefts or imagined thefts. The media not only endorses such outcomes,
but regularly, repeatedly, helps prepare the way for, and then eggs on,
such a reaction.

If Words Could Kill

We need to banish the word "looting" from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.

"Loot," the noun and the verb, is a word of Hindi origin meaning the
spoils of war or other goods seized roughly. As historian Peter
Linebaugh points out,
"At one time loot was the soldier's pay." It entered the English
language as a good deal of loot from India entered the English economy,
both in soldiers' pockets and as imperial seizures.

After years of interviewing survivors of disasters,
and reading first-hand accounts and sociological studies from such
disasters as the London Blitz and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I
don't believe in looting. Two things go on in disasters. The great
majority of what happens you could call emergency requisitioning.
Someone who could be you, someone in the kind of desperate
circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary supplies to sustain
human life in the absence of any alternative. Not only would I not call
that looting, I wouldn't even call that theft.

Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in the United States and
other countries, though it's usually applied more to, say, confiscating
the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding hungry children. Taking
things you don't need is theft under any circumstances. It is, says the
disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has been studying the
subject for more than half a century, vanishingly rare in most

Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in
the aftermath of a disaster. In that phase, the survivors are almost
invariably more altruistic and less attached to their own property,
less concerned with the long-term questions of acquisition, status,
wealth, and security, than just about anyone not in such situations
imagines possible. (The best accounts from Haiti of how people with
next to nothing have patiently tried to share the little they have and
support those in even worse shape than them only emphasize this
disaster reality.) Crime often drops in the wake of a disaster.

The media are another matter. They tend to arrive obsessed with
property (and the headlines that assaults on property can make). Media
outlets often call everything looting and thereby incite hostility
toward the sufferers as well as a hysterical overreaction on the part
of the armed authorities. Or sometimes the journalists on the ground do
a good job and the editors back in their safe offices cook up the crazy
photo captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.

They also deploy the word panic wrongly. Panic among
ordinary people in crisis is profoundly uncommon. The media will call a
crowd of people running from certain death a panicking mob, even though
running is the only sensible thing to do. In Haiti, they continue to
report that food is being withheld from distribution for fear of
"stampedes." Do they think Haitians are cattle?

The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite
people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly
justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on
control -- the American military calls it "security" -- rather than
relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting
to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a "stampede" and
adds that this delivery "risks sparking chaos." The chaos already
exists, and you can't blame it on these people desperate for food and
water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that
they're unworthy and untrustworthy.

Back to looting: of course you can consider Haiti's dire poverty and
failed institutions a long-term disaster that changes the rules of the
game. There might be people who are not only interested in taking the
things they need to survive in the next few days, but things they've
never been entitled to own or things they may need next month.
Technically that's theft, but I'm not particularly surprised or
distressed by it; the distressing thing is that even before the
terrible quake they led lives of deprivation and desperation.

In ordinary times, minor theft is often considered a misdemeanor. No
one is harmed. Unchecked, minor thefts could perhaps lead to an
environment in which there were more thefts and so forth, and a good
argument can be made that, in such a case, the tide needs to be
stemmed. But it's not particularly significant in a landscape of
terrible suffering and mass death.

A number of radio hosts and other media personnel are still upset
that people apparently took TVs after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans
in August 2005. Since I started thinking about, and talking to people
about, disaster aftermaths I've heard a lot about those damned TVs.
Now, which matters more to you, televisions or human life? People were
dying on rooftops and in overheated attics and freeway overpasses, they
were stranded in all kinds of hideous circumstances on the Gulf Coast
in 2005 when the mainstream media began to obsess about looting, and
the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana made the
decision to focus on protecting property, not human life.

A gang of white men on the other side of the river from New Orleans
got so worked up about property crimes that they decided to take the
law into their own hands and began shooting. They seem to have
considered all black men criminals and thieves and shot
a number of them. Some apparently died; there were bodies bloating in
the September sun far from the region of the floods; one good man
trying to evacuate the ruined city barely survived; and the media
looked away. It took me months of nagging
to even get the story covered. This vigilante gang claimed to be
protecting property, though its members never demonstrated that their
property was threatened. They boasted of killing black men. And they
shared values with the mainstream media and the Louisiana powers that

Somehow, when the Bush administration subcontracted emergency
services -- like providing evacuation buses in Hurricane Katrina -- to
cronies who profited even while providing incompetent, overpriced, and
much delayed service at the moment of greatest urgency, we didn't label
that looting.

Or when a lot of wealthy Wall Street brokers decide to tinker with a basic human need like housing.... Well, you catch my drift.

Woody Guthrie once sang that "some will rob you with a six-gun, and
some with a fountain pen." The guys with the six guns (or machetes or
sharpened sticks) make for better photographs, and the guys with the
fountain pens not only don't end up in jail, they end up in McMansions
with four-car garages and, sometimes, in elected -- or appointed --

Learning to See in Crises

Last Christmas a priest, Father Tim Jones of York, started a ruckus
in Britain when he said in a sermon that shoplifting by the desperate
from chain stores might be acceptable behavior. Naturally, there was an
uproar. Jones told
the Associated Press: "The point I'm making is that when we shut down
every socially acceptable avenue for people in need, then the only
avenue left is the socially unacceptable one."

The response focused almost entirely on why shoplifting is wrong,
but the claim was also repeatedly made that it doesn't help. In fact,
food helps the hungry, a fact so bald it's bizarre to even have to
state it. The means by which it arrives is a separate matter. The focus
remained on shoplifting, rather than on why there might be people so
desperate in England's green and pleasant land that shoplifting might
be their only option, and whether unnecessary human suffering is itself
a crime of sorts.

Right now, the point is that people in Haiti need food, and for all
the publicity, the international delivery system has, so far, been a
visible dud. Under such circumstances, breaking into
a U.N. food warehouse -- food assumedly meant for the poor of Haiti in
a catastrophic moment -- might not be "violence," or "looting," or
"law-breaking." It might be logic. It might be the most effective way
of meeting a desperate need.

Why were so many people in Haiti hungry before the earthquake? Why
do we have a planet that produces enough food for all and a
distribution system that ensures more than a billion of us don't have a
decent share of that bounty? Those are not questions whose answers
should be long delayed.

Even more urgently, we need compassion for the sufferers in Haiti
and media that tell the truth about them. I'd like to propose
alternative captions for those Los Angeles Times photographs as models for all future disasters:

Let's start with the picture of the policeman hogtying the figure
whose face is so anguished: "Ignoring thousands still trapped in
rubble, a policeman accosts a sufferer who took evaporated milk. No
adequate food distribution exists for Haiti's starving millions."

And the guy with the bolt of fabric? "As with every disaster,
ordinary people show extraordinary powers of improvisation, and fabrics
such as these are being used to make sun shelters around Haiti."

For the murdered policeman: "Institutional overzealousness about
protecting property leads to a gratuitous murder, as often happens in
crises. Meanwhile countless people remain trapped beneath crushed

And the crowd in the rubble labeled looters? How about: "Resourceful
survivors salvage the means of sustaining life from the ruins of their

That one might not be totally accurate, but it's likely to be more
accurate than the existing label. And what is absolutely accurate, in
Haiti right now, and on Earth always, is that human life matters more
than property, that the survivors of a catastrophe deserve our
compassion and our understanding of their plight, and that we live and
die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them

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