On Jan. 12, there was one U.S. reporter in Haiti. A week later, there were hundreds. Some have already come and gone.
Typical. Foreign countries often merit U.S. coverage only after earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, or coups. Then, reporters milk the site for heartbreaking scenes and inspiring rescues before shutting off camera lights and laptops and moving on to the next disaster.
What Walter Lippmann long ago dubbed the "restless spotlight" of the news remains a sad and cynical truism today.
However, I have been studying news coverage of Haiti for more than 10 years, and for the first time, I am hopeful. New media - social media - just may be able to keep the spotlight lit.
When the earthquake hit Haiti, Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz was the lone U.S. reporter in the country. With the AP office destroyed, some of the first reports of the quake came from cell phones, as survivors sent word to others inside and outside the country. Soon, raw news and images flowed out through social media as eyewitnesses shared updates and photos over Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace. Some used Skype to speak to aid organizations and family. Katz himself borrowed a BlackBerry to send his first report and documented the destruction of his AP home on a widely viewed YouTube video. Other mainstream media also are directing readers to blogs, YouTube, and Twitter.
I know the mainstream reporting from Haiti will be short-lived. I recognize that news organizations are challenged by slashed budgets and deep cutbacks. When I sat behind a desk in the Inquirer newsroom, the paper had at least a half-dozen foreign bureaus. Today, there are none. Earlier this year, the Boston Globe closed the last three of a once-large stable of overseas bureaus. Other news organizations, from broadcast to cable to magazine, have followed suit.
It will not be long before Haiti is once again bereft of reporters and the earthquake receives mention in the news only on its anniversary.
What gives me hope? There are a number and variety of nongovernmental organizations, relief agencies, and religious groups with well-established roots in the villages and cities of Haiti. These charitable institutions have long recognized and addressed the deep and dire poverty of the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. Their continued presence and their increasing willingness and ability to communicate through social media may allow the story of Haiti to be told long after the mainstream media depart and the focus of the world begins to dim.
Another reason for hope: Social media may find a sizable audience for news about Haiti. The earthquake inspired record-breaking generosity and interest. The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimated recently that donations to Haiti exceeded $709 million, more than 20 times the amount given to 2004 tsunami relief. Much of this giving has transpired through social-networking sites as well as cell phones, especially during and after star-studded telethons. For example, the American Red Cross has raised $12 million via text messages. Despite what the cynics opine, people showed their interest in international events and, too, may want to know how their money and support are being used to rebuild Haiti. Social media may provide those answers.
The challenges will be immense. Haiti's story has cultural, economic, and political complexities that have plagued reporters for decades. U.S. policies toward, and actions within, Haiti have challenged the most experienced correspondents. My studies of reporting on Haiti consistently showed the country portrayed in simple, stereotypical, and even mythical, terms as a fantastic and mysterious "other world," shaped by violence and voodoo. It may well be that social media's citizen journalists - some of whom have lived and worked in Haiti for years - can provide a clearer picture of Haitian life after the quake.
In some ways, then, the Haitian earthquake may mark the most cynical model of mainstream news reporting: a disaster exploited for all its horror and then discarded in the wake of the next. But perhaps it can come to mark a shift to a new model, in which the social responsibility of reporting on international affairs passes from mainstream media to social media.