Sunday, January 17, 2010

Visions of Haiti on Television

To be honest, I don't usually turn to television in a time of crisis: as a wise friend of mine at the Media Studies Center observed, it makes you dizzy and is less reliable than the newspapers. Still, I dip into tv to see what my fellow Americans are seeing. For all the breaking news from Haiti on television, it is striking to see how quickly the medium falls into formulaic patterns of coverage. A desire to console, and an inadequate appreciation of history, are both apparent.

The desire to console was apparent in an exchange between an anchor and a reporter. The reporter had just finished trying to describe the depths of the devastation he had seen. The anchor then responded that while it was awful, perhaps this was a time for Haiti to finally overcome its problems. The reporter looked skeptical, but the anchor kept prodding him until he said the equivalent of "perhaps."

Another aspect of the consoling role is the medium's addiction to high emotion and strong graphics. This tendency leads to plenty of air time for rescues that work out. Unfortunately, as we're learning, the ones that work out are a rarity. The result is a false send of consolation from happy stories of rescue.

Amid all this, it would be good for Americans to learn more about their country's long involvement in Haiti. The fine author Tracy Kidder made the shrewd point that this earthquake was not a natural disaster, but a disaster that wreaked devastation because so many human actions had made so many people vulnerable. Americans are part of this. As one of the networks recognized in a thumbnail sketch of Haiti's history, the United States has been deeply involved in Haiti for many decades.


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