Haiti's Misery

In the wake of a devastating earthquake in Haiti, tools for in-country reporters and local journalists to cover the story.

"Catastrophe" seems not large enough a word to describe the unfolding crisis in Haiti, where the worst earthquake in 200 years hit Port-au-Prince in the afternoon of January 12, leaving thousands dead — children buried in the rubble of schools, patients in hospitals, workers in government buildings and thousands of others in the city's network of shantytowns. As aftershocks reverberate through the region, an estimated 3 million traumatized people are in desperate need of food, shelter and basic human comfort.

Humanitarian organizations based in Haiti have sustained significant collateral damage: The United Nations has lost its mission chief and more than 100 U.N. support staff are missing in the rubble of its collapsed headquarters; the Roman Catholic archbishop of Port-au-Prince is dead; at least two hospitals operated by Medecins sans Frontieres have been severely damaged, according to early reports. Water, power and telecommunications, at best sketchy, are now decimated. And the humanitarian infrastructure — missions, medical clinics and feeding centers — are reportedly barely functioning, as tent cities spring up to treat the injured and feed the hungry.

A nation whose enduring poverty and violence have been all too easily ignored is now the focus of the world's attention. A global story has become a local story, as frantic members of the Haitian diaspora seek family members, disabled NGOs try to regroup and governments and private charities scramble to provide aid. The few journalists already in country face significant logistical challenges. And local reporters around the globe, absorbing the impact of the quake as it resonates in their own communities, are looking for leads.

There is a wealth of traditional and non-traditional tools to help report this important story. First, the traditional:

The Dart Center's 40-page booklet, "Tragedies and Journalists," available online and in PDF format, is a comprehensive guide for reporters, editors, photographers and managers on every aspect of reporting tragedy.

"Natural Disasters and Mental Health Issues," an essay by Australian psychiatrist Alexander McFarlane, explores the long-lasting impact of earthquakes and other disasters on victims.

"Untold Aftershocks," in which journalist Zhao Xue reflects on the aftermath of the 2008 China earthquake on victims and some of the regrets journalists who cover them have had about overly aggressive interview techniques.

For journalists who may be deployed to Haiti, the 2004 Asian tsunami offers important lessons both in news choices and self-care while on this challenging assignment. From Dart Centre Australasia. six international journalists who covered the tsunami offer their reflections and advice, and reporter Kimina Lyall of the Australian describes the emotional toll of covering a mass-casualty disaster.

Hands-On Reporting

Humanitarian agencies are at the heart of this story.

A key player is the United Nations, which does not have a strong or nimble web presence. Find the latest updates at the U.N. NewsCentre and relevant videos of official statements on its webcast page. A better bet is the UN corps of information officers standing by to provide access to sources for journalists for English, Spanish. In Haiti, Chief of Public Information for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti is David Wimhurst--hard to find, because his office has been destroyed. But at U.N. headquarters in New York, Farhan Haq and Douglas Coffman can put you in touch with the appropriate expert in the language of your choice. Catharine Smith ([email protected]) and Paulina Kubiak ([email protected]also are on point to arrange interviews with experts and facilitate coverage as events unfold. 

AlertNet, a website for NGOs operated by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, is a good window of information into the world of humanitarian organizations. The AlertNet blog contains dispatches from aid workers in Haiti and updates from their home offices.

Global Voices has some solid reporting coming out of Haiti, with more to come, as the international community mobilizes. GV's Eyewitness Tweets follows the story in 140-character blasts, supplying big details and small.

Social Media and Citizen Journalists

"Haiti--Toujours les souffrances!" keened a poster on the wall of Earthquake Haiti, the most active Facebook group in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, with more than 40,000 members at this writing. Keeping in mind that while posts from sites like Facebook and Twitter always need verification for use in any reporting, you can still pick up insights on the impact of the Haiti disaster in your local community.

Earthquake Haiti is heavy with queries from all over about the safety of loved ones in Port-au-Prince, but it also provides a way into some fascinating local stories. There is the ongoing drama of a team of student volunteers for the Coconut Creek, Florida, charity Food for the Poor, who were reported among the 200 people trapped in the collapsed Hotel Montana in Port-au-Prince. Another series of posts points to some good newspaper reporting from the Windsor Star in Ontario on the search for a group of Canadian soldiers who are part of the United Nations Stabilization Team in Haiti.

Journalists are justifiably skeptical of crowdsourcing in an unfolding news story, but the Kenya-based citizen journalist site Ushahidi — the Swahili word for "testimony" — is tracking and seeking to verify earthquake-related incidents in Haiti. It started out as an experiment — Ushahidi had been engaged in an earthquake response exercise a joint project with the International Network of Crisis Managers and the United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs based in Colombia. But when the quake struck, the exercise escalated into a real-time mission, mapping, tracking and seeking to verify incidents as they are reported.

It's one of those surprising and possibly path-breaking moments in reporting, when a disciplined group of observers — in this case U.N. workers and NGO crisis managers — have found themselves transformed into high-tech witnesses. Watch this site. What happens here could become a very useful element in the ever-expanding, web-based journalist toolkit.