CNN's star anchor Anderson Cooper narrates a chaotic street scene in Port-au-Prince. A boy is struck in the head by a rock thrown by a looter from a roof. Cooper helps him to the side of the road, and then realizes the boy is disoriented and unable to get away. Laying down his digital camera (but still being filmed by another CNN camera), Cooper picks up the boy and lifts him over a barricade to safety, we hope.
"We don't know what happened to that little boy," Cooper says in his report. "All we know now is, there's blood in the streets." (To view the CNN story, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Unh4v1lFU0.)
This is great television, but it's not great journalism. In fact, it's irresponsible journalism.
Cooper goes on to point out there is no widespread looting in the city and that the violence in the scene that viewers have just witnessed appears to be idiosyncratic. The obvious question: If it's not representative of what's happening, why did CNN put it on the air? Given that Haitians generally have been organizing themselves into neighborhood committees to take care of each other in the absence a functioning central government, isn't that violent scene an isolated incident that distorts the larger reality?
Cooper tries to rescue the piece by pointing out that while such violence is not common, if it were to become common, well, that would be bad -- "it is a fear of what might come." But people are more likely to remember the dramatic images than his fumbling attempt to put the images in context.
Unfortunately, CNN and Cooper's combination of great TV and bad journalism are not idiosyncratic; television news routinely falls into the trap of emphasizing visually compelling and dramatic stories at the expense of important information that is crucial but more complex.
The absence of crucial historical and political context describes the print coverage as well; the facts, analysis, and opinion that U.S. citizens need to understand these events are rarely provided. For example, in the past week we've heard journalists repeat endlessly the observation that Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Did it ever occur to editors to assign reporters to ask why?
The immediate suffering in Haiti is the result of a natural disaster, but that suffering is compounded by political disasters of the past two centuries, and considerable responsibility for those disasters lies not only with Haitian elites but also with U.S. policymakers.