The media is having a shining moment in Haiti. At long last, its relevance is clear.
After years of handwringing about the sorry state of news, the cutbacks in foreign coverage, the blurring of lines between news and entertainment, and the dearth of investigative reporting, television has managed to bring us an important story from Port au Prince -- in vivid and graphic detail. Across network newscasts, CNN and the cable outlets, and PBS we've had in depth coverage of a non-stop, 24-hour a day heartbreaking event that reminds us daily of the fragility of countries and of life. Nothing quite compares to the power of these video images.
Yet radio continues to be the dominant news provider for Haitians themselves -- telling people where to find everything from food stocks to missing relatives. When other telecommunications was knocked out by the quake, Signal FM continued broadcasting nationwide -- its equipment thankfully intact in a country where illiteracy and poverty has always made local radio the broadcaster of choice. Haiti reminds us that hi tech is only part of the story of nation-building -- and that without radio much of the world would remain in the dark.
Social networking and internet sites have proven their utility in keeping the world engaged and involved in Haiti from video streaming of people trapped in the rubble, to reassuring loved ones abroad, to providing information on how to help. The web has connected America to Haiti and to the stories of a neighboring country in ways that a newspaper or book simply cannot do. It has created a global teachable moment in civic engagement that only direct participation, albeit virtual, can create.
Cell phones have also had their moments of success in this crisis--providing reporters with a way out of satellite-poor places. Text messaging has been a conduit for real time, on-the-ground information used for crisis mapping while hearing the voices of victims and the pleas of aid workers adds to the urgency of the moment. For those who were reunited by cellular technology, or directed to help, there is nothing more comforting than the sound of a human voice on the other end.
What's been accomplished in Haiti through any one of these media platforms has been impressive. Taken together we see a study in leverage and global outreach, a clear reminder that with media, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts - and it has produced record sums of money for the benefit of others in record time.
But despite all the wonders of the information revolution the truth remains that much of the world is, like Haiti, still not part of it, still not wired. Moreover, despite the benefits of long-distance technologies, we learn, painfully, that without on-the-ground infrastructure and information, a society cannot function. Local government, local police, local media-- they remain key pillars of civil society. You can't govern from afar.
The inability of Haiti to function successfully in good times tested its ability to survive through terrible times. International assistance has proved vital, but it cannot substitute for the workings of local administration, without which it is hard for outsiders to effectively help. What Haiti needed before the earthquake and what it will need in the future are the tools and strategies of a healthy nation state -- a stable central government, rule of law, a sustainable economy and a vibrant media.
Much as the US and other countries have tried to help Haiti, the truth is that much more needed to be done and more must be done in the future to prevent this fragile state from collapse -- either from within, or from forces of nature. Eventually, the foreign reporters will go home. And Haiti will have to cover its own story -- hopefully a story better than today's.
Tara Sonenshine and Sheldon Himelfarb work for the United States Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by Congress to increase the nation's capacity to manage international conflict without violence.
Start your workday the right way with the news that matters most. Learn more