I just wanted to pass on a few good reads about the Haiti situation — not so much the news, but some commentary on how elites, such as the media and organizational leadership (the UN), model institutional racism.

First, Campus Progress published an interesting interview with Dr. Kathleen Tierney, professor of sociology and behavioral science and director of the Natural Hazard Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Dr. Tierney had some interesting things to say about the behavior of media outlets when reporting on large scale disasters.

And what did the early research discover?

If you go back to the 1950s and you look at some of those writings, a lot of it’s about disaster myths—what people say happens in disasters versus what really happens. What these researchers discovered was that the media—even way back in the 1950s and 1960s—approached huge disasters with certain frames. When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts. And even back then, the looting myth always came to the fore of media reports.

As it has in Haiti.

Yes. For example, the day after this earthquake in Haiti, it was reported that a prison had collapsed and prisoners had gotten away—the presumption being that they had escaped to go and loot. The prisoners didn’t go to check on their mothers or their sisters, they went to loot. And we presumably know this, because they’re bad people, they’re criminals. The bad people frame reached its nadir with Katrina.

It’s really rare to gain exposure to a media outlet not run by a multimillion dollar corporation. Consequently, it’s even more challenging these days to trust a media outlet’s reporting on these larger events. With powerful corporations running these outlets, it’s not hard to see how ratings and advertising drive sensationalism in our media. If the story’s made more juicy, the idea is that more people tune in. But “juicy” apparently doesn’t mean accurate. Tierney explains the looting fallacy the media reported in its coverage of Hurricane Katrina.

Do you think that because the victims of both Haiti and Katrina were poor and black, the media approached the stories with a certain perspective?

Definitely. There is an institutionalized racism in the way these poor black disaster victims are treated. The victims of Katrina were treated with so much presumption, as if you could assume they were going to loot, because they were black. Just like we know that the people in Haiti are bad because they’re black. Black men especially are demonized. During Katrina, the media picked up on every rumor—whether it was raped four-year-olds in the Superdome or people shooting each other. Actually, for a paper me and a couple of my graduate students wrote called “Metaphors Matter,” we found some transcripts of TV programs in which members of the media expressed regret. They were saying, “We really blew it during Katrina; we acted on all of these rumors.” I myself was on Jim Lehrer’s show, where they were asking about the looting [in Katrina], and I got into it with a police officer, and he ended up agreeing with me that it was a myth. It’s not real…

This institutionalized fear is also at play in the Haiti earthquake rescue efforts, only it might be a bit less based on race than class. To CNN’s credit, it does a good job of shining a light on the questionable behavior of the UN leadership. Last night, a Haitian resident assisting those critically injured in the attack told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta that the UN medical personnel had fled, ordered out by UN officials because of safety concerns. A retired Army Lt. General explained what was going on:

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel Honoré, who led relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said the evacuation of the clinic’s medical staff was unforgivable.

“We can’t be leaning so much toward security that we allow people to die,” he said Saturday.

“Search and rescue must trump security,” Honoré said Friday night. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life. They need to man up and get back in there.”

Honoré drew parallels between the tragedy in New Orleans and in Port-au-Prince. But even in the chaos of Katrina, he said, he had never seen medical staff walk away.

“I find this astonishing these doctors left,” he said. “People are scared of the poor.”

It’s very interesting to me that there’s constant talk of the world uniting together to support Haiti, yet the very people charged with the responsibility of assisting the Haitian people bail when they stereotype the poor and imagine the bad things that might happen. In fairness, the rescue teams did return to Haiti this morning as the article noted, but the time they were gone last night is telling. As Dr. Tierney points out in her interview, it invalidates the “We’re all Haitians” sentiment. Even though it sounds nice, realism tells us we’re not. This fear of the impoverished and subsequent withdrawal from the area by UN forces is a display of cultural ignorance. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s something that should be recognized. The reality is that the wide majority of non-Haitians has no clue what it’s like to be Haitian, to live in such deplorable conditions.

I’m not writing this because I’m pissed off that this is going on. I simply think it’s important that as many people as possible dig deeper than the glossy, convenient stories today’s newscasts offer us. There’s some compelling sociology and anthropology existing underneath the reporting. Once we become aware of that, I believe we can improve our responses — both in the rescue work and reporting work — to similar disasters in the future.

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