Watching the heart-rending images and stories coming out of Haiti over the last week, we’ve found ourselves worrying not only about the human tragedy but also about how much we really know about what’s going on down there.

The Haitian earthquake is a vivid example of how the world still relies upon the mainstream media to tell the stories that no one else will. The news media is often guilty of overkill, such as when Tribune Co. sent 14 reporters to cover a Super Bowl in which none of its hometown teams played or when reporters jam-pack a Presidential press conference to report on the same thing everyone can see on TV. Haiti is different. A natural disaster needs to be told through many images and personal accounts. There can’t be enough reporters in that devastated region right now.

Who’s going to fill that role as news organizations shrivel? We have more information available to us today than ever, but we rely on organizations with fewer and fewer resources to tell us about important events like the Haitian earthquake. Few bloggers are going to travel to an impoverished and devastated region on their own dime and the participants in the tragedy are too focused on survival to tweet what’s going on around them.

Calculating Media’s Value

A new research study dramatizes the continuing value of mainstream media, albeit in a small domain. The Pew Research Center Project for Excellence in Journalism looked at the news ecosystem in Baltimore for one week last summer and followed six major narratives that dominated the headlines. It concluded that while there was lots of chatter going on, eight out of 10 stories merely repeated or repackaged information published in mainstream media and 95% of all new information came from traditional media sources.

The most important source of original reporting was the Baltimore Sun, which contributed nearly half of all original news reported in the area. However, the study also found that the Sun produced 32% fewer stories than it did in 1999 and 73% fewer stories than in 1991. The good news is that researchers found 53 different outlets disseminating news. Unfortunately, “83% of stories were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information,” said Digiday Daily.  “Of the 17% that did contain new information, nearly all came from traditional media either in their legacy platforms or in new digital ones.” Radio accounted for if a pitiful 7% of all original news.

Perhaps news organizations in the future will mobilize groups of stringers to cover momentous events while cutting back on pointless trips to political conventions. Or perhaps they won’t. A 2008 survey found that, faced with shrinking staffs, newspapers were actually consolidating their coverage on fewer stories and shedding the special interest stuff that didn’t draw large audiences.

An interesting side note is that the Pew study also found that 63% of the stories were initiated by government officials, most notably the police. Since those institutions generally don’t talk to anyone but the traditional press, perhaps a bigger issue is how to democratize access to the sources of information.

Public relations blogger and new media expert Shel Holtz contributes some interesting perspective. He points out that while social media is serving as an effective means of accelerating knowledge of a news event, “it’s not panning out as a replacement for professional journalism.” Social media has had considerable value in the Haitian disaster as a fund-raising vehicle, but not as a primary news source.

The Newspaper Association of America might consider how it could use the public’s fixation on the Haitian disaster to tactfully point out that it was mainstream media that brought this story to the world. Perhaps the industry can use events like this to warm consumers to the idea that these services have value and deserve to be supported.


By the way, Google has used its satellite imaging service to dramatically document the devastation in the region. The Google Earth images are available here and will be continually updated.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 20th, 2010 at 8:16 am and is filed under Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Comments

  1. January 21, 2010 @ 11:32 am



    Rosanne,

    Thanks for posting this. How true it is! As a PR/Marketing professional, I live a digital life. But the question posed here is a vital one for any democracy…because a democracy can’t really function without straight, unbiased reporting of the news.

    This question – Who will tell Haiti’s Story in the Future? – leads me to think of a question even larger in scope: If the mainstream media die, who will tell any country’s (or people’s) stories in the future?

    Steve Winston
    President, WINSTON COMMUNICATIONS
    http://www.winstoncommunications.com
    steve@winstoncommunications.com

    Posted by Steve Winston
  2. January 21, 2010 @ 3:42 pm



    Media’s value is being show for its true worth.

    While its easier to interrupt the receding flow of commercials on the media, the remaining 30% of media coverage that’s not mere echoes from the original report, probably from a blogger who’s living through the quake and devastation, came from people who were there from the beginning.

    The Johnny-Come-Lately’s airlifted into any disaster are not really adding to the information flow and are, in fact, being seen as interrupting the flow of aid and wasting the few resources left in the earthquake zone.

    Since we can get internet communications by several wireless means, including by satellite, we aren’t dependent on the probably damaged cabled infrastructure.

    Lets get our info from people who can use the succor and comfort, as well as the therapeutic value of reaching out to us directly, and only have people who can actually do something, other than waving a microphone and camera in people’s wounds and suffering.

    The media have learned nothing since Katrina.

    The media are still underfoot, in the way, and filling the airwaves with second-hand anguish and advertisement for underarm deodorant or denture cream or personal hygiene products splattered with blue liquid, (aimed at an audience of Na’vi, I guess.)

    Diane Sawyer got to practice her O-Level French but, apart from that, there was nothing she said that could not have been said better, more concisely, more urgently, by anybody whose house had been reduced to splinters and rubble and who’s family members were buried under it all.

    Posted by msbpodcast
  3. January 30, 2010 @ 3:13 pm



    There is no better time than now, nor place than Haiti, to provide citizens with cameras to tell their own story. Last month, media professionals dropped in on Haiti following the devastating 7.0 earthquake. Major print media, competing for viewers, dispatched star photographers to the scene. The Washington Post sent Carol Guzy, winner of several Pulitzer Prizes. Her images, posted to the Internet, are shot in stark black and white, making them even more dramatic. The Los Angeles Times sent Carolyn Cole, and the New York Times sent Damon Winter, also Pulitzer winners. Even legendary war photographer James Nawtchwey was there a few days after the quake.
    They, along with scores of other photographers from around the world, captured devastating images of death, despair, and destruction that were relayed to those outside Haiti via the Internet and 24/7 news outlets. The volume of such images in the U.S. press, particularly of dead and dying people, eclipses the number of similar images from any other natural or unnatural calamity in recent memory. In fact, this may be the first time that mainstream media in the United States has saturated the public with death imagery, upsetting many viewers but also inducing sympathy prompting significant philanthropy.
    Collectively, the thousands of images taken by professional photographers represent one of the most compelling depictions of a catastrophe that I have seen in my 40 years as a professional photographer. With no yellow police tape stretched across the tragedy, as would be customary in the United States, the photographers had complete access and, under perilous conditions, created beautifully crafted, albeit gruesome, photographs. They did a superb job depicting epic horror, which millions of others witnessed at a distance through their newspapers, Internet sites, and television.
    In addition to still image coverage, television crews from across the globe sent their star on–camera reporters who provided round–the–clock coverage. CNN, for example, sent Dr. Sanjay Gupta and anchor Anderson Cooper. While watching CNN, feature after feature showed Dr. Gupta saving lives, while nimble enough to also report the story. Cooper, a heroic Johnny-on-the spot, conducted interviews with people who had just lost their entire family or had been recently dug out of the rubble, some cooperating with Cooper’s interviews even while dying of hunger and thirst or requiring emergency medical care which, in the earliest days of the crisis, was essentially unavailable. I was mesmerized by their stories, although it was increasingly unclear who the story was really about: the reporter, devastated by what she or he was witnessing, or the people living the nightmare.
    By year’s end, when the images from Haiti are a blur in the public’s mind, the major publications will devote significant time and resources toward winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize; winners will earn bragging rights over their competitors. It is also conceivable that, in a decade or two, some of the beautiful but devastating images may be hanging in a gallery or museum and sold as art to wealthy patrons.
    What was missing from this reportage—both still and moving—was the opportunity for Haitians to tell their own stories. One blogger stated on internet site Newspaper Death Watch, “When Diane Sawyer arrived on the scene she got to practice her O-Level French but, apart from that, there was nothing she said that could not have been said better, more concisely, more urgently, by anybody whose house had been reduced to splinters and rubble and who’s family members were buried under it all.”
    This brings me to the heart of the issue: Why wasn’t more time devoted to citizen storytelling? And, when the media departs to await another earth shattering story, will we continue to cover the story; especially if it is told by the people of Haiti, showing and telling the world of their ongoing struggle to rebuild their lives?
    There is a decades old criticism of the “outsider,” most often journalists from developed nations, arriving in underdeveloped nations to tell the story of “insiders.” Whether HIV/AIDS in sub–Saharan Africa, conflict in the Middle East, violence in economically depressed U.S. inner cities, poverty and alcoholism in Native American communities or, currently, victims of the earthquake in Haiti, the outsiders’ stories are often the only stories told. Criticism tends to focus not on the presence of journalists but, rather, on the ways in which they depict the story and the lack of acknowledgment that there is an equally, if not more important role, for local storytellers.

    With the attention that professional journalism has brought to both the plight and strengths of the Haitian people, perhaps this is a perfect time to expand the practice of participant photography in Haiti, providing Haitian citizens the opportunity to develop their media skills and visually share their continuing stories over the coming decades. There are, currently, a host of NGO’s in Haiti capable of training people in the tools and technology necessary to sustain global attention for their long–term struggles. One group, Zanmi Lakay, has been teaching participatory photography for several years. Founded by American Jennifer Pantaléon of Pacifica, California, along with her Haitian husband Guy, they are dedicated to improving the quality of life for current and former Haitian street children and orphans.

    It is urgent that the Haitian story continues to be told long after the journalists leave. Engaging Haitians to tell their own stories to the world, through pictures and words, is one way to reveal the resiliency and beauty of the human spirit and to show the rest of the world Haitian’s are valued in God’s creation.

    Posted by jim hubbard