Does CNN Go Too Far?

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.

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10 years 2 months ago
Padre: "And when does the human instinct to help trump the need to report? ...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".

I had exactly the same respone. I wonder: would it not be better to film him as he doctors?
dorothy olson
10 years 2 months ago
I love Anderson Cooper and CNN, however, I ended up turning it off last night. I thought it was just overload for what they were showing and talking about. We need to know the extent of what is going on, but beyond that we do not need to see bodies being scooped up or trapped under concrete or wounded laying waiting for medical treatment and things that at in no way lend anything to the story. This is why the media always takes such a hard hit. It goes FAR beyond what it needs to report and centers strictly on the most awful places and right in the faces of people that are already hurting. Who needs a camera in your face at that time or why do we need to see so many dead bodies over and over. Yes, I think they took it too far and will probably continue to do so - you wonder if they are reporting for the sake of reporting or creating drama where it already exists and doesn't need a helping hand.
Rudy Rau
10 years 2 months ago
If ratings and money were not to be made, Haiti would scarcely rate a mention on any of the network or cable stations. Cooper would no doubt have his private concerns for the people, but unless his stature and the stature of his employer is elevated, they do not bother.  But they will be all over the news if someone comes up with another mistress of Tiger Woods.
10 years 2 months ago
I also turned off the CNN coverage last night after I felt that the reportage had gone over the line from competent journalism to exploitation of human suffering (however unintentional that happened to be).  It also seems to me that such reporting can be dehumanizing to viewers who may drift into voyeurism.  Better, I thought, to pray, make a donation and reflect on the words of Archbishop Dolan as he prayed before the Pieta in Rome:  "Haiti is the broken, bloody body of Jesus in the arms of his Blessed Mother, and crying out to the world now for aid and assistance."
10 years 2 months ago
I think that we should refrain from praising the press.  There is good reason to believe that the press was a major problem in New Orleans as many thought that there were armed gangs roaming the areas and even acts of rape and murder at the SuperDome.  There was supposed firings at rescue helicopters which were grounded as a result.  The media probably caused some deaths as their false reports delayed part of the response.  And as far as Nagin is concerned, here is an excerpt from Wikipedia:
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was also criticized for failing to implement his evacuation plan and for ordering residents to a shelter of last resort without any provisions for food, water, security, or sanitary conditions. Perhaps the most important criticism of Nagin is that he delayed his emergency evacuation order until less than a day before landfall, which led to hundreds of deaths of people who (by that time) could not find any way out of the city.[2] Adding to the criticism was the broadcast of school bus parking lots full of yellow school buses which Mayor Nagin refused to be used in evacuation. When asked why the buses were not used to assist evacuations instead of holing up in the Superdome, lack of insurance liability was given as a reason.
There was plenty of blame to go around during Katrina and it was definitely not the finest moment for the press.  And by the way the victims were disproportionally white and old.  You would never have gotten that from the press.
Molly Roach
10 years 2 months ago
These are the right questions to ask about coverage.   Our news media simply lacks any sense of what it means to be protective of human dignity in situations of extreme suffering.   The question "How did it feel?" is the verbal equivalent of the 10 year old taking the wings off of insects.  A vast ignorance and lack of creature empathy is at work.
Helena Loflin
10 years 2 months ago
CNN has its problems with exploitation, but as usual, no "news" organization is exploiting Haitians more than FOX.  I dropped by The O'Reilly Factor last night to catch how Bill was spinning the rescue and humanitarian efforts against the Obama administration.  Sure enough, Bill was casting doubt on how Americans' donations to relief agencies would really be used and where the money would actually the Obama reelection fund, of course.  I kid you not.  Bill does not want Americans to respond the President Obama's request that they open their wallets to the suffering in Haiti because a huge response would make Obama look good.  Real mature, Bill. 
Limbaugh is having his own exploitation fest saying that the earthquake was tailor made for Obama who would use it to increase his credibility among the light skinned and dark skinned Haitian and African Americans here.  Limbaugh is such a poet. 
Sure, Anderson Cooper is very competitive, but at least he's focused on broadcasting the suffering of the Haitians instead of divisive right-wing rhetoric.
Jeff Bagnell
10 years 2 months ago
The media scares me sometimes.  Any tragedy is obviously exciting for them.  They are there in 5 minutes.  Geraldo shows up just after the quake.  Ratings.  More advertising revenue.   The dead are not prayed for, just filmed.
Nicholas Collura
10 years 2 months ago
Thank you, Father. I agree completely: these are definitely difficult questions, which the journalists probably ask themselves, too. I am reminded of Kevin Carter, the photographer in Sudan in the early 90s who, after taking a number of riveting pictures of famine and civil war, apparently was so haunted by what he'd seen (and patiently photographed) and by the celebrity and laurels it earned him that he killed himself at the age of 33. 
So there's that. But also, browsing the CNN website, a different scenario caught my attention. A small child had been trapped under some rubble and, as the journalist explains in this clip, the news crew actually stopped and helped to dig her out. Amazingly, the child survived. What's striking as you watch the clip is that there is no footage at all of the rescue attempts - I guess because the videographers had abandoned their cameras. And yet the entire story is told in the post-recovery footage of the beautiful little girl, looking meekly around at her rescuers with big trusting eyes, delicately sipping water from a little plastic cup. So these particular reporters put human life first - and still captured all the emotions of the a story in the process.
Joseph Farrell
10 years 2 months ago
I agree with Father Martin and with many of the other posters. It is the exploitation that is symptomatic of our 24-hour news cycle.

And as for the politicizng of the tragedy, it is both sides. I've seen it from Rachel Maddow and Rush Limbaugh. What we have to do is ignore it and not engage in the bickering that we have now even on this blog post. Don't get bogged down in the quagmire and do what you can for the people of Haiti.
Amy Giglio
10 years 2 months ago
I worked at Seton Hall University 10 years ago when we had the terrible dormitory fire which claimed the lives of 3 freshmen.  I remember the local news on campus with their cameras pointing at us as we tried to enter the overcrowded chapel for Mass the day after the fire.  I felt that there was no respect for us who were grieving the loss of these bright young men.  I remember the days afterward, after the media was banned from entering campus, when newspaper reporters were climbing the fences which surround the university to get a new quote or a new angle on the story. 
Yes, the TV and newspaper reporters and photographers have an important job to do.  How many of us would have a clear grasp of the desperate situation in Haiti if they were not there?  But I wonder sometimes if human decency simply gets lost in the chase after a good story. 
Marc Monmouth
10 years 2 months ago
Seems like some comments have been removed. Censorship by liberals?  But only of the opposing viewpoint!


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