CNN has had the best coverage by far of the Haitian earthquake. The network, and its reporter Anderson Cooper, who was apparently one of the first journalists to enter Port-au-Prince after the earthquake, is to be greatly commended for bringing this immense human tragedy into our living rooms. As he did with Hurricane Katrina, Cooper brings an articulate and human perspective to these terrible events (and is also not afraid to show human emotions). One of the most moving aspects of CNN's coverage has been their focus on the way that the earthquake affected the poor, as well as their anchors' frequent descriptions of Haiti's overall poverty before the earthquake. Sometimes it seems as if we only remember the poor during a tsunami, a hurricane or an earthquake.
But there are times when I wonder whether CNN, the other major networks and television journalists in general, go too far. When does coverage become exploitation? When one aid worker was pulled, after many hours, from the rubble of a collapsed building and collapsed into the arms of his rescuers, a CNN reporter raced up to him, almost tripped over himself, and asked that old chestnut, How do you feel? "How did it feel? How did it feel?" he asked the man, literally seconds after his harrowing experience. "Not good," the aid worker said curtly. In another segment, Anderson Cooper trailed a family who was burying a young woman--a journalism teacher as it happened--in an overcrowded cemetery in the city. After they pushed her body into a crypt and prayed, the cameras rolled. You could hear their prayers clearly. Cooper said that the family had invited the camera crew along, but I wonder whether they were even able to think straight after days of no food and perhaps even no water. What did the camera crew ask? "Do you mind if we come along to the cemetery?" "Do you mind if we film the very last moments you will ever have with your sister?" "Do you mind if we film you praying in the midst of your grief?" I wonder. Perhaps I should give CNN the benefit of the doubt, but I wonder when respect for privacy trumps the story.
And when does the responsibility to help trump the need to report? Make no mistake, the reporters in Haiti are doing the world and the citizens of Haiti an enormous service, as they did for the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. (Remember it was the televisionfootage from the Superdome and Mayor Ray Nagin's anger on the radio that seemed finally goad the government into doing something.) The media serves an essential purpose. But when I was watching Dr. Sanjay Gupta last night tour the hospitals and point out the wounded, I wanted to say to the network, "Put the cameras down and let him be a doctor." No doubt he was able to treat the poor men and women afterwards. But, more troublingly, the network also filmed him treating a 15-day-old baby in front of the baby's father, another intensely private moment that could just as easily have been described, not shown.
The most troubling video though is the one above, the admittedly gripping and widely seen tale of a young girl trapped under the rubble. Anderson Cooper stands atop the wreckage covering the story, as her family and friends claw at the concrete in a desperate attempt to free her. Go to the mark of 1:10 to see Cooper stick a microphone under the rubble and catch her terrified screams and choked sobs. Did they ask her if they could film the most terrifying moment of her life? And if they did, was it right even to ask? How is human dignity best respected? By filming or by not filming?
I don't have the answers to these questions, by the way. In the midst of such difficult, indeed grueling, reporting one will make some lapses in judgment. Moreover, I have no experience as a television reporter dropped into the site of a natural disaster. On the other hand, I do have some experience working among the poor. And even in the midst of heroic coverage come moments when these questions are important ones to ask, particularly when covering the trials of the poor, who are so often exploited.
May God bless the brave reporters, journalists and media crew who are covering this tragedy, and helping to evoke compassion and financial support from the world. May God also give them a sense of discretion.