The Case for a Justice Perspective: Media Approaches to Haiti

Our last post generated some controversy (although folks emailed their thoughts – let’s have public discussions in the comment section instead!). A few have said the tone was too harsh, too one-sided, or too extreme. Because of this, I believe it’s a good time to explain a bit about what informs my perspective on Haiti issues – what we at the Haiti Justice Alliance call a “justice perspective.” Understanding this perspective is essential to understanding the tone, and is intimately linked to the broader goals of this blog.

The need for a justice perspective is made more acute by the predominance of unjust media approaches to Haiti. I’m talking about stories that describe a Haiti without Haitians, or more frequently stories about a Haiti whose only inhabitants are (Haitian) victims waiting to be saved and (foreign) aid agency saviors. For the majority of Americans who are only exposed to Haiti through mainstream news, these portrayals can permanently distort their sense of the country.

I’ll begin by exploring the most common media pitfalls before discussing why a justice perspective is a necessary corrective.

Where are the Haitians?

Most journalists who write about Haiti don’t ask any Haitians what they think. They don’t ask what they think about the relief effort or about NGOs’ work. They certainly don’t ask what they think about USAID or the UN mission,  MINUSTAH.

Take, for instance, NYT Magazine’s feature on Sean Penn and his tent camp. In the words of photojournalist Matt Muspratt, the article “reports from Haiti without featuring any Haitians or Haitian institutions.” 14 individuals are featured, 5 of whom are quoted directly. The only Haitians even mentioned? Former President Préval. President Martelly and his wife. Wyclef Jean. Not exactly the crowd with an informed perspective on life in the tent camps, which the article allegedly discusses.

This is, as Muspratt calls it, “Erasure Journalism.” As in, the NYT “erased” all Haitians from the narrative. If you believe in transparency and accountability for NGOs and aid organizations that work with vulnerable populations, then erasure journalism should turn your stomach. Why? Because it allows rich Americans to judge whether the work of other rich Americans is working for poor, black people in another country, rather than asking those people directly.

Present but passive: Haitians as victims

Even when Haitians aren’t “erased,” the way they’re depicted is often problematic. One of the most common journalistic models is the Haitian Victim/White Savior story.

For instance, the Washington Post ran an article on Friday about earthquake refugees facing the rainy season without adequate housing. It’s an important topic and deserves coverage. Unfortunately, the story alternates between two themes: describing the plight of homeless Haitians and describing aid agencies’ efforts to figure out “what to do with them.” There are no Haitian problem-solvers; no Haitian assessments of the situation. Haitians are only deemed capable of describing their own suffering – it’s US NGO representatives who get to identify problems and work on solutions.

The other variant of this model is the ubiquitous personal interest story. For instance, there have been dozens of pieces like the recent NYT article, “Without His Mother’s Milk, A Haitian Boy Is Lost.” It describes the heart-wrenching death of a child, then discusses a Harvard doctor’s efforts to educate Haitian mothers about breast-feeding. While this may be a newsworthy tale, it becomes a problem when article after article depicts the “Whites In Shining Armor” trying to save passive, helpless, or unenlightened Haitians.

There are, of course, a few writers who do better. Mac McClelland of Mother Jones, for instance, takes the rare step of giving Haitians political voice by noting that most Haitians detest the thuggish UN Mission in their country. Haitian voices are also well-represented in her one-year retrospective assessing the reconstruction. But these examples are hard to find. Most pieces fit the description offered by Ansel Herz in his satirical piece on US journalists called, “How To Write About Haiti“:

You are struck by the ‘resilience’ of the Haitian people… They are stoic, they rarely complain, and so they are admirable. The best poor person is one who suffers quietly. A two-sentence quote about their misery is all that’s needed. … Don’t listen if the Haitians speak loudly or become unruly. You might be in danger, get out of there. Protests are not to be taken seriously. … Do not explore Haitian-led alternatives to foreign development schemes. There are none. [Emphasis added]

Too harsh, or simply too Haitian?

So was our last post on the problems with the USAID agriculture program called WINNER (which fits category #1) one-sided? Perhaps, in the sense that we only discussed Haitian perspectives on WINNER. Given the context described above, though, this is appropriate.

First, WINNER has huge, well-resourced organizations singing its praises (e.g. the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund, Monsanto Inc., USAID, and the White House) in endless press releases that get picked up and amplified by press agencies. You know who doesn’t have that on their side? Haitian peasants, like the ones who organized a mass burning of WINNER-subsidized Monsanto seeds and then a general protest march against WINNER.

Second, from a moral standpoint, Haitian voices should be the ones we listen to on the topic of what’s best for Haiti, what’s working for Haiti, and what Haiti needs.

Thus, if this blog over-emphasizes Haitian perspectives, and doesn’t balance our commentary by incorporating US responses to, say, criticism about WINNER – well, so be it. It’s a necessary corrective to most news stories.

“Exploring Haitian-Led Alternatives to Foreign Development Schemes”

The table below summarizes key differences in our approach relative to that of maintream media:

We’ve had numerous posts in categories #1 and #2 (assessment and context). Today, though, I’m excited to announce the beginning of a series of posts looking at solutions (category #3). Over the next week, look for posts about some approaches to agriculture in Haiti that empower, rather than subjugate, Haitian communities. Also on the docket is an update from our interns at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, who are pioneering a new model of support in which we help students plug in to the work of our partner groups.

We hope you’ll join us for these posts, and we hope that the contrast between Haitian led and foreign approaches to Haiti’s problems speaks for itself.


by Nathan Yaffe

3 Responses to The Case for a Justice Perspective: Media Approaches to Haiti

  1. […] more: The Case for a Justice Perspective: Media Approaches to Haiti … Other related posts IN CASE U MISSED IT: RIHANNA x MAXWELL DO OPRAH FOR HAITI Earlier today Oprah […]

  2. ansel says:

    Great post Nathan!

  3. Terri says:

    Thanks for posting this. I spent 4 months in Haiti last year volunteering in Haiti and trying to write from the inside of the aid apparatus in order to shed light on how it works, why it often doesn’t work, and the unintended consequences of aid. I have published very little, for many reasons. You’re article is a really good, really accessible breakdown of what’s wrong with the way Haiti (and so many other places) are covered.

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