Haiti, reality, and the distance of mass media

[Brief note: I had already written this posting, and then was pointed to a relatively similar editorial on The Globe and Mail by Judith Timson.  It's definitely worth a read--and we don't say exactly the same things.][Also, warning: this is, like many of my pieces, a rather lengthy essay.  Apologies in advance, but I didn't feel I could do the topic justice with less.]

I’ve been wanting to post now for some time about the Haiti earthquake because I feel so incredibly conflicted about the discussions surrounding it.  Ever since it first happened, I have had a real reluctance to read news about the earthquake and the repercussions of it.  I’ve dragged my feet about reading emails with appeals and commentary.  I’ve even had a hard time praying about it.  This post is my attempt to wrestle with why I feel this way.  I think it’s because the earthquake is not real, but nobody seems to notice this.

I’d better explain that right away.  What I don’t mean is that the earthquake didn’t happen or that people are not suffering or that people didn’t die because of the disaster.  Obviously, that’s not the case.  What I mean is that the reality of the earthquake to us, mediated as it is from thousands of kilometres away, is substantially different than the experienced reality on the ground in Haiti—but I’m not sure we always realize how different these realities are.

The first reason for this is that the reality in Haiti is being fit into a pre-formed template.  Our news media tells stories.  That’s their job.  But they tell an awful lot of stories and they have to produce them very quickly: they are not the novelist or screenwriter who works until they get their story right.  In order to get their stories together rapidly, journalists typically hook into well-established patterns.  And the disaster-story-in-a-poor-country plotline is about as well-established as it gets.  The sequence is familiar: first the initial teasing shock headlines, then the images and the estimate of just how bad it is (always bad), then the heart-wrenching appeals, the miraculous rescues, the arrival of aid (always too slowly), and.... fade out.  I don’t mean to make light of any of this.  Obviously, things are horrifically bad in Haiti, a great deal of human suffering is occurring, and developed nations are pouring in aid, and it’s not getting to people fast enough (although as always, the reporters somehow get ahead of the aid workers to show us that the aid isn’t arriving).  And the fact that the Haiti earthquake is narrated like other earthquakes makes sense, because they do tend to have similar results.

But the problem I’m trying to highlight is that the people actually suffering, dying and mourning right now aren’t real to us—they’re different actors in a play we’ve seen before.  Playing the role of the mourning foreigner today is the Haitian woman from Montreal who finds her sisters’ arms sticking out of the rubble of her house.  For her, this experience is raw, graphic, unimaginable, revolting and, most importantly, unprecedented—for us, it’s one more example of a popular story we’ve seen already.  We are moved, but I’m convinced we don’t see her as real.  If we did, I don’t know we could keep watching the news.  If that woman was right beside us, screaming a keening wail on her knees in the dust, we wouldn’t move on to the next segment of the story.  Jesus wouldn’t.  And yet, I do.  And it makes me sick to my stomach when I actually think about it.

The second reason I think there’s a reality disconnect is that while we read our multimedia representations (pictures, video, sound) as faithful, their form (not just their narratives) inevitably distorts the lived reality of the people in Haiti.  There are a couple of aspects to this.  First of all, we’ve gotten so used to seeing images and hearing recorded sound that we forget how artificial and incomplete they are.  Typically, when we I show a photo to my daughters, I say, “Look, there’s grandma and grandpa!”  I don’t usually say, “There’s a picture of grandma and grandpa!”  Yet we know they’re not the same.  Grandma and grandpa aren’t flat.  They are dynamic, able to respond.  And most importantly, they don’t exist within a little tunnel box of reality (the frame of the picture).  When we see them, we recognize the complete context they are in.

Images of a destroyed neighbourhood are not the destroyed neighbourhood itself.  The picture of a dead body is not a dead body.  The recording of suffering is not the same as suffering.  The problem lies not with our technology—the problem is that we’ve naturalized it, and don’t recognize (or don’t usually recognize) the substantial disconnect.  Journalists may give us the most powerful images they can, but all of us know that standing next to a crushed and broken corpse is light years away in experience from the most artistically an emotionally evocative photograph of the same thing.  We think we see the results of the earthquake.  We are really experiencing a dull, filtered, edited version of it, and our imaginations are filling the mental gaps.

The other distortion of media form has to do with where we’re getting our Haitian earthquake news: from the news media.  I’m not here to bash news providers—they get plenty of that already.  But we need to acknowledge their limitations.  First, most of us get our news from commercial providers.  Virtually all commercial providers of news subsist on advertising, which means that no matter how altruistic or public-oriented their intentions, they have to draw audiences in order to gain income.  And it means they show ads.  The few times I have sat and watched TV news of the earthquake, I have been appalled and nauseated to see graphic accounts of death and suffering sandwiched between commercials hawking cream cheese, sub sandwiches, or financial planning as well as promos for violent TV action dramas.  Obviously, business and life in general can’t come to a halt whenever a tragedy occurs—although it can, given sufficient reason, such as the 9/11 attacks—but the point again is that we as viewers, listeners and readers are further distanced from the reality of the event.

But even if you watch PBS news, which is remarkably light on advertising, the need to draw and keep audiences—as well as the needs of effective production—mean that the news must be segmented, packaged and manageable.  Programs are on a tight schedule, they have systems for making sure they cover what they need to in the time they’re allotted, and they try very hard to make things intelligible.  All of this works against letting the tragedy speak for itself.  This is an appalling event of such magnitude, it doesn’t make sense, and it deserves whatever time it takes to help us get an inkling of that.  But reality doesn’t fit in a newscast—it needs to be edited to make it fit.

So why does this matter?  The problem here is that we can get a sense of doing something without actually doing enough.  We get a feeling of comprehending the situation when in fact we don’t.  And whatever feelings that we have about the whole event are unlikely to last or result in significant, lasting change.  Sociologists Robert Merton and Paul Lazarsfeld talked about this as the “narcotizing dysfunction”: the idea that when we watch television, we feel like we have participated, that we’ve done something, we’ve become involved with something, when in fact we have simply watched something.  The earthquake is not real for us.

“Whoa, whoa!” you say.  “What about the tremendous outpouring of support for Haiti?  What about the fundraisers, the charity concerts?”  As I’ll make clear below, I think these are important,  good things, but there’s plenty of reasons to be cynical.  First of all, it’s not going to last.  Eventually, the shock and horror of the earthquake will wear off, and the long hard slog of clean-up will start, and since this is not terribly interesting, and doesn’t fit in our news media really popular bag of stories, the earthquake will drop off our radar, to be occasionally raised to short-lived prominence when there’s a major setback, some muckraking on incompetence and corruption with the relief effort, or when a principled reporter convinces a boss to run a story on the rebuilding.  Think I’m just being overly negative?  How many major natural disasters do you even remember from the last five years?  How many of them are you still sending money to?  How much do you want to bet that they’re still re-building?  Aid agencies know it’s true.  While the story is in the popular consciousness, the donations will roll in, so they have to bank up the dollars while they can in order to fund the necessary but very un-sexy long-term work.

But secondly, if we were really impacted by this event—in the way that we would if we were there, experiencing it—we would change our lives in substantial ways.  A blessed few have already jumped on planes and are on the ground risking their health, exposing themselves to the emotional trauma and literally giving themselves.  God bless those few—their reward will be in heaven (and I say that without any flippancy).  Obviously, most of us can’t do that.  But Haiti is not in the economic position it’s in because of a single earthquake.  It is part of a global economic system.  Just as the slums of East Vancouver are part and parcel of the poitical-economic structure that produces the lovely, clean, safe, expensive high-rise neighbourhoods of downtown, so Port-au-Prince is the armpit of the world’s economy.  Our consumer-oriented, me-first lifestyle plays a role in the perennial poverty and associated poor construction practices that so exacerbated the horror of this earthquake.  You want to really make a change?  Make global justice and economic development work a substantial part your life long-term.  How many eager donors do you think are going to do that as a result of this event?  Obviously, it will to some, and I am as guilty here as many others—but that doesn’t ruin the general validity of the critique.

The short-term and (relatively) shallow response says to me that much of it is simply a sop to our guilty consciences.  This is how I view benefit concerts.  It’s great the artists do what they can to help out.  But why do we need a concert to convince us to give?  Or even as an occasion to give?  If we care, we should give.  Period.  It feels to me that a lot of this stuff we’re doing is more about us than about those suffering in Haiti.  For me, that’s the most discouraging, depressing part about all of this.

And yet... and yet...

Reality is more complicated than the above critiques seem like to admit.  It would be great if we could really experience the life of others—in both joy and sorrow.  It would be great if we could expect everyone everywhere to live their lives for everyone else.  But life is not like that.  And imperfect hope, imperfect love, imperfect response to others is, I think, better than nothing.  There is, in other words, something valuable and important about the media reporting on the earthquake.

Clearly, the money given will be helpful to the people of Haiti—to varying degrees, of course, dependent on the organization in question and the nature of the help offered, but helpful nonetheless.  And I don’t doubt that many readers and viewers in North American have been genuinely touched by the news reports on the earthquake.  Any time we feel that connection of sympathy, that empathy with suffering, that love for other humans, that movement of the spirit to lend a helping hand, any time those things happen, we have become more human, more as God intended us to be, even if those positive things are undercut by some of the problems I’ve outlined above.  And who am I to judge?  Maybe the changes in your life have been real, profound this time.  It is not my place to determine how the Spirit moves in people’s hearts and lives.  Every time I have been tempted to completely abandon coverage of Haiti or make an acid remark about potentially shallow expressions of solidarity or sympathy, I’ve had to take a step back and remember that I am not The Judge—and that a cynical response may cause more harm than good.  (I also realized after re-reading this post that it could be a very long excuse for me not doing much beyond sending a donation to someone—and that would be very cynical.)

So what do I do with this conflicted mess of thoughts?  Well, I take several points away from this.  First, it reinforces to me the importance of critical awareness.  There’s nothing wrong with looking at a concave mirror, and there’s nothing wrong with the mirror itself.  The problem occurs when we look at it and think we’re thinner than we are.  What I mean to say is that all forms of communication distort reality.  That’s not the problem.  We have to deal with photos and common narratives and imperfect conduits—that’s what we’ve got.  The problem occurs when we forget about the distortions—when we ignore how the medium shapes (and to some extent is) the message.  We need to remember that our reality is not theirs, and that that difference matters.

Of course, understanding this is only the first step—and a useless one unless it leads to a changed life.  The first change I hope awareness leads to is decreasing our thrill of voyeurism.  We like comedies, but we also like tragedies, and so we have to be very careful that our horrified response is one of genuine concern, not one of entertainment, harsh as that may sound. 

But more importantly, and more clearly, I hope our unreal experience of Haiti’s earthquake leads us to commit ourselves to long-term changes in our lives.  I hope we can take this moment as inspiration to make a long-term commitment to Haiti—not a commitment that lasts as long as it is in the news, and then fades until the next crisis comes along.  I hope we can make a long-term commitment to living a lifestyle that does not oppress the people of developing nations.  May hope spring where it is not expected, and may the Spirit move what I think is unlikely or impossible.

Last updated Jan. 25th, 2010 at 5:07pm by Kevin Schut