Compassion, Self-Congratulation and Cynicism: Haiti and Broadcast News
The New York Times is running an interesting piece, critiquing the broadcast coverage of the Haiti disaster, commenting in part on the tendency of broadcasters to reach for a good-news-bad-news paradox, and more importantly – the careful balance anchors try to achieve between “compassion and self-congratulation.”
The piece is by Alessandra Stanley. Please read it.
I understand the natural instinct to push for the good news. The purest definition of news I’ve ever heard? News is the aberration of normality. Amid all that tragedy, doing a story on a kid being pulled out of the rubble isn’t some over-produced moment intended to pull on the heart-strings. It’s an aberration.
Stanley goes on to observe:
The line between compassion and self-congratulation is thin on television; in a calamity this vast and acute, many viewers flinch at any sign of reportorial showboating.
She cites some examples along that thin line:
- CBS’s Katie Couric holding the hand of an injured child who was being treated by a doctor.
- Brian Williams, who acknowledged that he and his crew were the only ones with food and water, but that the purpose of NBC coverage was to galvanize viewers to get involved.
- CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, a medical doctor, walked past injured in a hospital, while CNN repeatedly showed a different sequence of him administering to one injured child.
I’m torn. As a freelance journalist who spent 17 years overseas, the US broadcast teams were by far the most egregious “parachute” journalists – dropping into a situation they knew virtually nothing about, covering it with the thinnest veneer of journalism, while relying on teams of local fixers and producers who do the actual legwork of journalism, before flying out again. (CNN is the exception in some – but not all – cases.)
That doesn’t appear to be in the case in Haiti. In disasters, reporting is a veritable “embarrassment of riches” – stories abound. It doesn’t require much investigation.
In the cases Stanley lists, would you rather Katie Couric didn’t hold the kid’s hand? We don’t actually know if the producers said, “Let’s go do a story about Katie and a suffering kid,” or if they were focusing on a kid and Couric just happened to step in. (I imagine she, and every journalist there, have had to walk by a lot of suffering kids this week.)
And I actually appreciate Brian Williams’ guilty admission that NBC isn’t all that hard up on the ground in Haiti – I’m sure they flew in a charter flight of their own camping supplies. And he’s right: the purpose of journalism is to inform.
Sanjay Gupta…He’s there as a journalist, not a doctor, so no – I don’t expect him to be treat every injured person he comes across. And I can believe that he takes a little time out to help when he can. And the apparent repetition of that segment isn’t coming from Sanjay Gupta, it’s coming from CNN producers in a control room somewhere in the US.
But at the same time, in the celebrity-soaked US culture, I think there’s far too much focus on the anchor-as-a-personality.
During the Hurricane Katrina disaster, for example, my broadcast journalist friends and I widely mocked CNN’s Anderson Cooper for his infamous crying stand-up. At one point, shooting a piece-to-camera amid the devastation, Cooper got teary.
Why did we mock him? Because it wasn’t live. Cooper had the opportunity to re-shoot that piece-to-camera – without crying – but the calculated, cynical decision made by him or by CNN was to run the one in which he got a little weepy. That shifted CNN’s editorial line in that segment from being about New Orleans, to being about Anderson Cooper’s reaction to New Orleans. That made it “Broadcast News.”
In my 17 years overseas, primarily in Southeast Asia and South Asia — when the “big story” happened — the non-American networks including the CBC, the Australian networks, the BBC for example, had been covering the area in some form before a) disaster struck, or b) the riots happened, c) the elections were held, etc. They had a presence and a body of work to represent their interest in foreign news without any personalities attached – beyond working-grunt correspondents. (NPR was there, as were US print media.)
So if you’re an American network, and you’ve decided to do some foreign news, you don’t pay your anchor $15 million a year…. not to hold the kid’s hand.
Without being on the ground in Haiti, we’re never going to know the point at which the genuine feelings of an anchor give way to the “information triage” that goes on in a disaster… remember – news is the aberration of normality.
But I’ve always thought it would be nice if a network would pay their anchor, oh - I don’t know, $5 million a year to squeak by – while devoting the other $10 million to coverage of foreign affairs like their broadcast colleagues around the world. Then they’d really be doing their duty to inform.