Monday, June 27, 2011

Journalism in Haiti: A few thoughts

I thought long and hard about whether or not to post the words you are about to read.

As I know how hard it is to be a journalist working in some of the harsher corners of the world - and that if you are doing your job well you inevitably piss off somebody - I generally try hold my commentary on other reporters' work to a minimum unless it is in cases of egregious factual errors or conflicts of interest. There will always be those willing to chatter from the sidelines at the work of reporters good, bad and mediocre, and I feel that, in general, with all the serious issues confronting the countries I myself work on, I would have relatively little to add to the cacophony.

Perhaps it is because I have spent so much time outside of mediacentric cities like New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco over the last decade, but I have, in general, never been much moved by the "and I alone escaped to tell thee" confessional pieces of journalists who fly into a desperate place for a few days (or weeks) and then immediately begin reminiscing about how rough the assignment was in print, on tv, etc. I've always felt that, if one can't take it, then one should just get another kind of job. We reporters are rarely the story, though I know such narratives are increasingly fashionable.

Perhaps that will explain my reaction to this story, "I’m Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease My PTSD," on the GOOD media website. Written by Mother Jones human rights reporter Mac McClelland, the article, as I read it, uses the mass rape of women in Haiti (and later in the Democratic Republic of Congo) as the background for a foreign reporter's journey of self-discovery. I can't speak to the author's motivations, but of the many articles on Haiti I have read over the years that have made me want to throw things, I don't think that I have ever read something that has viscerally struck me as more narcissistic as a piece of writing about this country I dearly love and have been visiting and reporting on for the last 15 years.

By no means do I want to make light of the journalist's trauma, or even less that of those she describes interviewing. Everybody experiences anguish and suffering in different ways. There may be much about the reporter's experiences there that I don't know but from the article itself, though it sounds as if, a rather disturbing and atypical (for Haiti) incident with a driver aside, nothing at all out of the ordinary happened. Haiti can be a rough place and journalists wanting to work there need to be prepared for that. Reading the article, though, I could not help but ask myself, as a foreign journalist who also works in Haiti, some questions.

With a million people still homeless in Haiti after the January 2010 earthquake, with a once-proud system of rural agriculture now on life-support due in no small part to the policies imposed on Haiti by the international community, with women and girls disenfranchised and and with the country's politicians seemingly poised to enter yet another period of poisonous deadlock, is this the best we foreign journalists can do? Is this the future of journalism? Where the suffering and struggle for survival of the majority of the world's population merely provides a backdrop for navel-gazing to even further promote was has already become our incredibly inward-looking, self-referential culture?

I am afraid it may be. On one hand it is good that the author does not pretend - as so many do - to be an authority on a country that she knows little about, but on the other hand, given all this space, isn't there SOMETHING happening in Haiti that deserves notice beyond the experiences and reactions of we foreigners (or, narrower still, we journalists) when covering the place?

Any foreigner who knows a little bit about Haiti will confess freely how much they realize they still don't know about this quite complex country. You learn things about it slowly and through trial and error in places like the desperate bidonville of Cité Soleil, in the moisture-dappled hills of Furcy and Fermathe, along its meandering coasts and amidst its inscrutable mountains.

But there are some things Haiti is definitely not. It is definitely not a therapist for we, the privileged outsiders entrusted with telling its stories. If all we can write about when faced with all of this suffering, resistance and resilience is ourselves, then we might as well stay home.

Their suffering is their suffering. Not ours. Give them at least that.


je said...

Thanks for this.

sep332 said...

You're not the first person I've seen to take this view, but I have to admit I don't understand it. The article is about her, it's not about Haiti. I didn't see it as narcissistic, but as qualified. She realizes that she can't speak for anyone else about sex or trauma. So she describes how she got to this unusual place, without pretending that her problems have anything to do with anyone else. If you look again, I think you'll notice that "Haiti" in the article isn't "real" Haiti, but the Haiti of her mind - specifically, the few bits of Haiti that left an impression on that part of her psyche. Again, the article isn't about Haiti. It's just about her.

Doug Pennington said...

I read her piece as autobiography - the story of a journalist who covers traumatic events and how those events affected her as a journalist. As a news reader, I am interested from time to time in the human beings who professionally filter and relay the events they witness back to me. She isn't trying to "be the story" if "the story" we're talking about is Haiti. In her piece Haiti is a setting, not the subject. Mac's piece is about the writer, about herself, and I'm still unsure why some are ticked off that she decided to publish it, as if a journalist's own experiences as a perceiver of events are somehow so irrelevant - perhaps even offensively so - as not to merit being distributed widely.


Thanks for an objective opinon that is too often lost amidst a plethora of absurdities that fit the day's planned editorial content.

Michael Deibert said...

I personally don't buy - at all - the "it's not about Haiti, it's about her" argument.

What I find interesting if the gulf in the reactions between people who have actually spent time living and working in Haiti and those who haven't. See below.

Jul 1, 2011

Female Journalists & Researchers Respond To Haiti PTSD Article

GOOD magazine recently ran a piece written by Mother Jones reporter Mac McClelland in which she details her disturbing experience in Haiti, subsequent PTSD, and her healing process. The crux of her story — that engaging in violent sex helped aid her recovery — is deeply personal, complicated, and unsettling. But so is PTSD, and recovery is never simple.

For all of its raw honesty, however, there's a real issue with the article: a lack of context. In absence of any real details about McClelland herself, it is all too easy to conclude that it was Haiti itself that pushed her over the edge. The dark and violent imagery she uses only serves to further that conclusion.

To 36 women who would know, that's a problem. Herewith, their open letter to the editors of GOOD.

To the Editors:

As female journalists and researchers who have lived and worked in Haiti, we write to you today to express our concern with Mac McClelland's portrayal of Haiti in "I'm Gonna Need You to Fight Me On This: How Violent Sex Helped Ease my PTSD."

We respect the heart of Ms. McClelland's story, which is her experience of trauma and how she found sexuality a profound means of dealing with it. Her article calls much needed attention to the complexity of rape. But we believe the way she uses Haiti as a backdrop for this narrative is sensationalist and irresponsible.

Between the 36 of us, we have lived or worked in Haiti for many years, reporting on and researching the country both long before and after the earthquake. We each have spent countless hours in the camps and neighborhoods speaking with ordinary Haitians about their experiences coping with the disaster and its aftermath. We feel compelled to intervene collectively in this instance because, while speaking of her own personal experience, Ms. McClelland also implies that she is speaking up for female "journalists who put themselves in threatening situations all the time," women who have "chosen to be around trauma for a living," who she says "rarely talk about the impact."

In writing about a country filled with guns, "ugly chaos" and "gang-raping monsters who prowl the flimsy encampments," she paints Haiti as a heart-of-darkness dystopia, which serves only to highlight her own personal bravery for having gone there in the first place. She makes use of stereotypes about Haiti that would be better left in an earlier century: the savage men consumed by their own lust, the omnipresent violence and chaos, the danger encoded in a black republic's DNA.

Sadly, these damaging stereotypes about the country are not uncommon. But we were disturbed to find them articulated in Ms. McClelland's piece without larger context, especially considering her reputation for socially conscious reporting.

Ms. McClelland's Haiti is not the Haiti we know. Indeed, we have all lived in relative peace and safety there. This does not mean that we are strangers to rape and sexual violence. We can identify with the difficulty of unwanted sexual advances that women of all colors may face in Haiti. And in the United States. And everywhere.

(continued below)

Michael Deibert said...

Unfortunately, most Haitian women are not offered escapes from the possibility of violence in the camps in the form of passports and tickets home to another country. For the thousands of displaced women around Port-au-Prince, the threat of rape is tragically high. But the image of Haiti that Ms. McClelland paints only contributes to their continued marginalization. While we are glad that Ms. McClelland has achieved a sort of peace within, we would encourage her, next time, not to make Haiti a casualty of the process.

In our own writings, we have gone to great lengths to try to understand and address the issue of trauma—as well as sexual violence—with sensitivity. As women who know and love Haiti, we are deeply troubled by Ms. McClelland's approach.


Lisa Armstrong, freelance reporter, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grantee

Amelie Baron, freelance reporter, RFI and Radio France

Pooja Bhatia, journalist and lawyer

Edna Bonhomme, PhD Candidate, Princeton University

Carla Bluntschli, Haiti activist

Natalie Carney, multimedia journalist, Feature Story News

Edwidge Danticat, writer

Alexis Erkert Depp, Haiti activist

Natasha Del Toro, video journalist, TIME

Isabeau Doucet, freelance journalist and producer, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, CSMonitor

Susana Ferreira, freelance journalist

Allyn Gaestel, freelance reporter, CNN, Los Angeles Times

Leah Gordon, artist and photographer

Michelle Karshan, Haiti activist and researcher

Kathie Klarreich, Knight International Journalism Fellow and author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti

Sasha Kramer, SOIL

Nicole Lee, Esq., President, TransAfrica Forum Inc.

Carmen Lopez, filmmaker and journalist

Melinda Miles, Founder and Director, Let Haiti Live

Eleanor Miller, freelance journalist

Arikia Millkan, Community Manager of Haiti Rewired

Carla Murphy, founding editor, Develop Haiti

Maura R. O'Connor, freelance foreign correspondent

Leah Nevada Page, economic development consultant

Claire Payton, PhD Candidate, NYU, Haiti Memory Project

Nathalie Pierre, PhD Candidate, NYU

Andrea Schmidt, Producer, Al Jazeera English

Jeena Shah, LERN Fellow, Attorney at Bureau Des Avocats Internationaux, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Alice Smeets, photojournalist

Alice Speri, freelance journalist

Maggie Steber, photographer, educator, curator, author of Dancing on Fire

Chelsea Stieber, PhD Candidate, NYU

Ginger Thompson

Emily Troutman, freelance writer and photographer, AOL, AFP

Amy Wilentz

Marjorie Valbrun, contributing writer at the and blogger at