On January 11, Jonathan Katz of the Associated Press was the only American foreign correspondent based in Haiti. And on that day, just hours before untold thousands were killed when a catastrophic earthquake struck, the U.S. media carried just one news story on Haiti. The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere was simply off the radar of its mighty neighbor.
When the ground stopped shaking, major American news agencies found themselves entirely unprepared to cover the developing tragedy on their doorstep with little more than talking heads in distant studios. They struggled for hours to simply produce footage of the devastation and gather the most basic of reactions. And though the coverage went into overdrive in the immediate aftermath, most of the US camera crews were gone soon after, and the headlines all but disappeared. It's not just that the news moved on; it's that news machines have cut foreign news gathering to such an extent, that many couldn't stay longer even if they wanted to. (Such was the sticker shock from the coverage that CNN, which at one point had more than 70 people on the ground in Haiti, reportedly put off plans to open two foreign bureaus).
There are exceptions, of course -- NPR, the New York Times, Washington Post, and the Miami Herald, which has a large diaspora readership. CNN's Anderson Cooper has also made it a personal mission to keep Haiti in the headlines. But for the majority of American news outlets, like so many international events before, sadly the Haitian earthquake has proven little more than a passing fad.
A few years ago this media flight might have meant the end of news from Haiti, but today compelling stories out of the Caribbean nation are still reaching the American public. Just this week I noticed stories about sex trafficking in the makeshift tent cities, about spontaneous micro lending enterprises, and a story about teachers using tree-mounted chalkboards to instruct outdoor classrooms. All indelible, powerful snapshots of a country in survival mode.
Who reported these stories? Not the mainstream press but humanitarian aid groups - using former journalists from NPR, CNN and the LA Times, who now work for groups like International Medical Corps, CARE and Save the Children. They are blogging, interviewing, shooting video b-roll and taking pictures, and distributing via mobile phones, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and their own websites and email lists. As former journalists, they understand what it takes to tell a compelling story, and they have new, affordable technology platforms to reach the public in ways like never before.
While the missions of aid groups are far different than those of traditional news organizations, their role in telling Haiti's stories is illustrative of what NGOs can and are doing to fill the growing geographic gap in foreign reporting. Clearly there are still questions about objectivity, because often underneath these stories is an appeal for donations. But that doesn't dismiss the real information that well-meaning aid workers are delivering because they are in the field, eyewitnesses to history.
What's more, many Americans want this information, if for no other reason than to see how their donations are being put to work. In the first 48 hours after the disaster Americans opened their wallets in an unprecedented way, giving a whopping $68 million, and in five weeks the total ballooned to over $774 million, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. A full month after the earthquake the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that 30% of Americans were following the Haiti story "most closely" -- a higher interest rating than any other headline. Only 10% said they were interested in the Winter Olympics, yet the two events received the same amount of coverage. Those numbers suggest Americans wanted more news about Haiti than they were getting from traditional sources -- a powerful message for newsroom executives.
For better or for worse, humanitarian journalism has undeniably become part of today's news narrative. While it may never replace what has been lost in foreign reporting -- and I would like nothing better than to see it come roaring back -- at least those Americans who want to engage with the rest of the world now have a viable alternative.