PEMBROKE PINES — Following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of New Orleans in 2005, residents were left to survive by any means necessary.
Yet even in the equalizing tragedy that is a storm, media accounts of people doing what they could to stay alive described blacks’ survival efforts as “looting,” while whites – who also took food without paying for it – were described as simply “finding” it.
A panel of local media representatives gathered together last week at the Broward College/South Regional Library in Pembroke Pines to discuss these and other images, as well as local media coverage of international issues.
The panel, organized by the South Florida Black Journalists Association, featured a who’s who of local media, including: John Yearwood, The Miami Herald’s world editor; Yvette Miley, news director at NBC6/WTVJ; Macollvie Jean-François, a reporter for the Sun Sentinel; and Eddie Dominguez, managing editor of the Daily Business Review.
Local radio personality Tamara G moderated the panel, which also addressed the positive impact that media coverage can generate.
The event began with a compelling look at the different language used to describe the same behavior.
Yearwood pointed out that The Miami Herald’s reporting of Hurricane Ike’s devastation of Haiti got the world’s attention. He said it was after the newspaper’s coverage that reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and others tried to beat a hasty path to Port-au-Prince.
Miami Herald reporter Jacqueline Charles was singled out for her compelling coverage of a storm-ravaged Haiti following Hurricane Ike. Herald photographer Patrick Farrell’s poignant images of a
Haitian man cradling his lifeless daughter accompanied Charles’ front-page accounts of the overwhelming grief and destruction experienced by the poverty-stricken country following the Category 3 storm.
The storm claimed the lives of 164 people in September, 74 of them in Haiti. The island had already been hit by three storms in 2008.
The consensus in the room seemed to be that the candid photos of death were necessary images to accurately convey the country’s severe conditions.
“Thanks to Jackie’s reporting and Pat’s magnificent photography, the world got a chance to see that Haiti should not be forgotten,” Yearwood said.
Following the coverage, local children donated money from their piggy banks and nationally, the Bush administration reconsidered its level of support.
“In Washington, while the administration was discussing how much money to send to Haiti, after that story appeared, the amount of money was raised from $10 million to $100 million,” Yearwood said in explaining the “power of terrific, brilliant descriptive writing.”
The coverage of the devastation in Haiti was apparently the exception, and not the rule, according to Dominguez, who said, “The American consumer has a very mild appetite for international news. Look at the coverage in Darfur, where thousands of people were being slaughtered. And you look at American newspapers and you look at CNN and you didn’t really see the coverage the atrocities merited.’’
He added, “If it wasn’t for BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), we wouldn’t know what’s going on.”
Jean-François theorized that “fatigue with Haiti” or the constant news coverage of the country’s political, social and economic issues may adversely affect the amount of interest Americans have for international news.
“As a Haitian-American myself, I get tired of some of the news that comes out of Haiti,” Jean-François said.
Miley spoke to the power of media collaborations in delivering important news. Because WTVJ got approval to send a reporter to Haiti only after the storm, the station partnered with The Miami Herald, putting Charles on the air and using Farrell’s photos during its broadcast.
Miley also reminded the group that the large number of black immigrants in South Florida warrants coverage of international issues, especially in Haiti.
“Broward County leads the country in foreign-born blacks,’’ Miley said. “This is a story about South Florida, people who live here; it’s from their country of origin. They care about that community so we’ve got to do a better job and maybe they don’t have an appetite for it, but as journalists, sometimes we have to force feed people what they need to know.”
Photo: Yvette Miley