Behind the news reports coming from Haiti you may have noticed a faint background noise: popular criticism of the shortcomings of "the media."
This isn't new. For anything newsworthy, there are the people who say "the media" have blown a story out of proportion, under-covered a story, covered up a story, reported a story with bias, or just plain got in the way.
I've always found these objections irksome not because they aren't true, but because they're so vague. "The Media" aren't irresponsible, but individual journalists can be. And it's about these people that I'd like to air my qualms -- about their actions in Haiti.
I think most reporters approached the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti with a satisfying sense of earnestness and journalistic integrity. Reporting on a disaster isn't easy, it's not cut and dry, and even upstanding reporters can get swept up in the chaos of trying to sort a tragedy on a country-wide scale. So, in general, I give a thumbs up to the fourth estate on this one.
There were things that I struggled to justify -- such as how reporters were able to get on the ground in Port-au-Prince before relief planes were allowed to land. But because I don't know the full details of how that happened, I'm willing to let it go.
I'm also okay with the fact that CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta picked up a baby with a head wound and treated her on camera. Some of my colleagues had some major issues with the fact that as a correspondent for CNN, Gupta was putting himself in the story. While I see where they are coming from, I believe journalists have the responsibility to be humans first and reporters second, and if Gupta had the opportunity to make some measurable difference for that baby, well, he should go for it. Maybe I thought it was a little weird that he chose to help a baby that had already been seen by a doctor, but who am I to say that the newborn didn't need more medical attention?
But there is one thing that I am not okay with: Journalists who are charging aspiring war correspondents thousands of dollars for workshops in Haiti.
It's no secret that journalists of all kinds descended on Haiti for the opportunity of recording history. But now, some photographers are hoping to cash in on that passion to capture the moment.
Shortly after the earthquake, photographer Andy Levin of 100Eyes amended a workshop available on his Web site. While relief groups were still rushing to rescue people trapped under buildings, Levin offered amateur photographers the chance to sign up for Photo Aid: Haiti:
In conjunction with our local partner, Zanmi Lakay, we will be conducting an ongoing series of workshops for photographers who will fly in to Port au Prince, and work with us in a grass roots aid effort to transport food from the 90% of the country, and the Dominican Republic, to our friends in the city. We will also offer our services to NGOs who are in need of photographs, and work with student from the Cine Institute in Jacmel, who are documenting the disaster in their own city and transmitting reports to the world community.
This sounds like a nice idea until you read further:
Pricing for the workshop is set a $1,500 at this time. We expect to have groups of 6-8 working on the ground, the sessions will last for one week, and our dates are flexible and dependent on enrollment. Costs are exclusive of transportation and food, and participants will be responsible for bringing in essential, supplies which we will detail for you, including enough food for your stay. There will also be limited housing possibilities and participants should understand that they will be working in a crisis area, and that a certain amount of risk is involved.
That's right, Levin is charging any hobby photographer with a thirst for adventure a flat $1,500 dollars a week to climb the rubble of Haiti's fallen homes and shadow aid workers with their gurneys of the dying, all in the spirit of honing their picture-taking skills under the pressure of tragedy.
I have some sympathy for the fact that Levin had established his workshops long before Haiti became a disaster zone, but there's a lot I find wrong with this. For one, bringing unseasoned photographers into the blooming post-quake chaos is just plain unsafe. In those first few days after the disaster, aid agencies and support and security officials need to focus on relief for their constituents, not on minding rogue photographers that are looking for a way to get involved.
For another, Levin is preying on the generosity and inquisitive spirit of these people and, in my eyes turning a dirty trick on potential volunteers. I know exactly where these photographers are coming from. As soon as the quake hit, I wanted to be in Haiti too. To help, to document, to prevent the world from forgetting a tragedy of these proportions. To be there for an event that will be in our history books. In my case, I decided that unless I could be there for a reason that would use my skills and expertise, there was no reason to be physically present in Haiti at this time. Haiti will need caring people and inquisitive eyes for a long time to come. But every journalist or aspiring journalist has to make the decision they believe in, and for those who decide that it is necessary to be there, making money off their generosity and passion is the last thing I would hope a fellow, more experienced journalist would choose to do for them.
Hey, we all need to make a living, but in tragedy-stricken Haiti and when that money could be going to relief efforts instead? I say poor taste, Mr. Levin.
I think the multimedia blog duckrabbit.info summed it up well when they said "Let the living bury their dead. Please." (If you're interested you can read more about the back-and-forth Levin and the blog got into after they published news of his workshops on their site.)
Unfortunately, others have caught wind of Levin's idea and are following suit. According to the photography Web site Lightstalkers.org, photographer Zoriah Miller has "decided to offer a special small group workshop in Haiti focused on photographing the aftermath of the earthquake."
Zoriah's original post has either been blocked from the public or taken down, but you can read it on photojournalist John Andrew Hughes' blog. Here's an excerpt:
Subjects covered will be working in disaster zones and other difficult and dangerous situations, survival and logistics in difficult environments, photograph people, working with NGO's (Non Governmental Organizations) and aid organizations, editing and digital darkroom technique and marketing and making your stories available for the world to see...This workshop is open to a maximum of four students. Cost is $4000 USD for seven days and students will be required to pay their own expenses. This will be a difficult workshop both physically and mentally and students should be prepared for minimal comforts. Students will sleep in their own tents and should bring their own supplies such as food and water purification.
After the initial post (and outrage over the $4,000/week price tag) Zoriah responded to criticism on Lightstalkers.org:
As far as the workshops go, if you think it is too expensive, dont go! This is the least expensive workshop I have ever offered and I have never had an unhappy student... Making money in this way saves me from having to deal with editors, photo agencies and other people in this business who I just cant stand. It allows me to produce work that I believe in and not what is selling to corporate media and advertisers. I remain proud of what I do and stand firm in my choices and beliefs. For an industry that prides itself on awareness and education and enlightenment, you sure are set in your ways and closed to the idea of anything being done differently.
So, I am egocentric because I charge $4000 for a workshop?...or maybe I am NOT because I did not advertise the fact that half of all of the money made from this workshop is going to my friends at Hospice Saint Joseph in Port au Prince, who lost all of their facilities. I added that fact to the post so you can all be happy and know that I will not get rich.
A $2,000 charge per person still sounds like making bank to me. Though, I do appreciate the fact that he's taking people there starting in mid-March, once the worst of the relief efforts have calmed a bit. I suppose for those who feel that they have an onus of responsibility upon them to document the quake aftermath, donating $2,000 to charity while being trained in Haiti may make them feel a little less ripped off, but this whole affair leaves me unsettled.
Then there are the questions that remain: Will the people who are trained in these workshops become any better photographers than those who choose a more traditional route? Will these workshops breed a new set of journalists with different or compromised moral values than their colleagues? I suppose only time will tell.
It's this borderline behavior by talented and respected members of the media that make me worry that the downfall of newspapers isn't what's going to tumble journalism. I just hope that in the future my fellow journalist colleagues will consider what their individual actions do to "the media's" reputation as a whole.