Messaging, the media, and Haiti

Along the capital’s main commercial strip Saturday afternoon, dozens of armed men — some wielding machetes, others with sharpened pieces of wood — dodged from storefront to storefront, battering down doors and hauling away whatever they could carry: shoes, luggage, rolls of carpet.

That is the New York Times on Haiti. The Guardian has similar accounts, as do masses of other papers.

Is robbery so endemic? One of my wife’s colleagues, a veteran of dozens of catastrophes and crises, is amazed by the (relative) calm and absence of looting. She reports storefront windows broken, but the goods behind intact. She’s seldom seen a crisis so under control.

Most journalists I know are keenly aware of the impact of their work on public opinion and policy. Donations and immigration relief have happened so quickly and so generously in part because of the quick and impassioned reporting on the ground. But looters and thugs on the front page only bolsters impressions that Haitians are ungovernable. This is a tragedy if untrue.

One of the challenges with impassioned advocacy is that it can come back to bite you from behind. I wish I could say that security and aid decisions are not made on the basis of what is fit to print in the Times, or that accurate intelligence always filters up from the ground to the policy makers on high. I haven’t seen it if it’s so.

Peacekeepers are undoubtedly needed. So is support for a struggling, possibly collapsed, state. I just want to suggest that an aid and security policy designed for thieving, ungovernable, progress-resistant Haitians looks very different from one that views civil society institutions as shaken but fundamentally strong.

I’m worried because the latter doesn’t make a very good news story.

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