World News

WITNESS: Haiti: do journalists help in disasters?

Andrew Cawthorne is Reuters’ bureau chief for the Andean region and lives in Caracas. He has been a correspondent with Reuters since 1992, and has been based in Panama, Venezuela, Peru, Cuba, Britain, and most recently in Kenya as the East Africa bureau chief. He is married and has two children.

A journalist sleeps as another gets ready to work at the Villa Creolle hotel in Port-au-Prince January 22, 2010. REUTERS/Eliana Aponte

In the following story, Andrew describes reporting on the earthquake in Haiti and the question many foreign correspondents face when covering disasters: do they help, or do they just get in the way?

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - “Can you help?”.

“Oh ... maybe the American soldiers or the Red Cross up there can.”

“No, can YOU help? I need YOU to help my baby.”

The Haitian woman carrying the wounded, feverish child caught me off guard during some interviews with earthquake survivors in a refugee camp.

Looking me in the eye, with dignified insistence, she posed the question that has wormed away uncomfortably at foreign correspondents for generations: can we help?

Sometimes, as in Haiti during the dark days since the January 12 disaster, the chronicler cannot avoid being participant, however much he or she wants the notebook or camera to be a shield.

This baby’s face was so covered with cuts, pus and sores that it was hard to look. Around him, in the same camp, were 50,000 other refugees.

Beyond them in myriad other camps were hundreds of thousands more: homeless, hungry and hurt by the earthquake. Not, though, to be treated as objects of pity: many were carrying out acts of heroism the likes of which we weedy hacks would never be capable.

So did we help -- the hordes of us who leapt on flights and into the backs of trucks to report the disaster that put Haiti so horribly back on the world map?

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Our countless words and images surely helped galvanize the unprecedented international response. Our visits to corners of Port-au-Prince where no-one was receiving anything must have added urgency and direction to the delivery of aid.

We gave voices to the homeless, and our stories of rescues in the rubble, the solidarity of Haitians on the streets, brought a modicum of hope.

To detractors though, the media once again jumped on a tragedy to exploit the suffering, get in the way of the rescuers, and waste precious resources with the gasoline, food and water needed to keep our expensive operations going.


And what about the long-term?

Organizations like my own keep a full-time reporter in Haiti. Joseph Guyler Delva’s home collapsed, and he has evacuated his wife and children to Canada, yet he is still reporting on his country, and will continue to do so day-in, day-out, long after the “parachute” correspondents pull out.

Despite that, media interest will dim as the days and weeks pass, just when Haiti needs the world to stick with it for the long run.

Veteran journalists from all round the world came to cover the Haiti disaster, and it was interesting to see how they handled the often unspoken question of how to help: whether to photograph or carry the wounded baby first.

A few threw themselves into the relief effort, helping transport the wounded to medical posts, doing some basic first aid, or trying to find missing parents of children.

Others hauled their consciences through by doing ‘one good turn’ each day.

Some stuck just to their trade, figuring they did not have the skills or calling to do what the many professional medics, soldiers and relief workers were there for.

Crossing the border from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, before flying home, these questions buzzed in the mind as trucks loaded with aid raced by in the opposite direction.

Any professional pride in the last week’s work seemed irrelevant, offensive almost.

Images of past assignments in Iraq, Somalia, Peru floated in and out of a sleepy and stressed mind. Hurricanes, conflicts, plane crashes, mudslides, bombings merged with the harrowing sights and smells of Port-au-Prince.

The help question burned deeper.

The baby? He received treatment, don’t worry.

Did I help? I just don’t know.

Edited by Kieran Murray