In the week following the massive Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, a number of high-profile American journalists—Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric, even Al Roker—have reported from the ground in Port-au-Prince. This has many Explainer readers wondering: If aid organizations are having such a hard time delivering food and medical supplies, how are so many journalists getting into Haiti?
They’re hitching rides with the military. Journalists who want to fly into Port-au-Prince can sometimes use empty seats on flights run by Air Mobility Command, the Air Force unitthat provides airlift support for all the armed forces and often assists in humanitarian missions. NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams, for example, flew home this weekend on an Air Force C-17 shuttling refugees to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. (There was some extra space available. Williams stressed that he “would of course have been bumped, happily, from any flight full of evacuees.”)
Journalists who try to piggyback on the military can’t be picky: They may have to put up with losing their seats at the last minute and must to be prepared to leave from one location (say, Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina) and return to another (like Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas). An AMC spokesperson estimates that the military has now flown about 50 media representatives in and out of Port-au-Prince. Journalists are also coming into Haiti with civilian aid missions or flying into the Dominican Republic and then traveling in by car, truck, or helicopter.
What about food and lodging? In the early days following the disaster, many news organizations were staying close to the Port-au-Prince airport, setting up temporary “bureaus” near the terminal and camping out on the tarmac. (The day after the earthquake hit, NBC’s Ann Curry tweeted that she was sleeping in an Air Canada luggage container.)
Since then, many organizations have found more stable lodgings. ABC News, for example, has a few dozen people—reporters, crew members, security, and a medic—stationed at a Port-au-Prince hotel. The ABC team is bringing in its own food, water, and fuel, routing it daily by ground and helicopter through Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. (News organizations commonly use such “staging grounds” when reporting from disaster zones—for example, Baton Rouge, La., was used during Hurricane Katrina.) CNN, meanwhile, has bought up most of the rooms in downtown Port-au-Prince’s Le Plaza Hotel. Like ABC, CNN is shipping in supplies for its 15 correspondents and roughly 60 support staff through Santo Domingo, though the Le Plaza kitchens are providing some meals.
Several journalists have apparently set up camp at the Hotel Oloffson, immortalized in Graham Greene’s novel The Comedians. (The hotel’s owner tweeted on Sunday: “The Oloffson looks like a refugee camp for journalists. So many people working and sleeping in the yard.”) The Hotel Montana, however, long a favorite of foreign journalists, has collapsed.
News agencies emphasize that their presence on the ground is in service of a greater good—i.e., publicizing, investigating, and humanizing the disaster. Some critics, however—like the New Republic’s Noam Scheiber—argue that a glut of reporters not only creates redundant reporting but diverts resources away from those most in need.
Bonus Explainer: Why don’t earthquakes get proper names, the way hurricanes do?Because they happen in one place. A storm can move 3,000 miles across land and sea in its lifetime, and the ability to disseminate clear information about its path and strength is crucial for public safety. According to the World Meteorological Organization—the body thatcoordinates the naming of tropical cyclones—giving storms pithy monikers like Mindy or Gordonmakes it easier for the media to report on them and for “widely scattered stations, coastal bases, and ships at sea” to share data quickly and accurately. For earthquakes, no such warning system is necessary. So the informal nomenclature commonly used by geologists—year and then location, as in “the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake”—works just fine.
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Explainer thanks Roger Drinnon of the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, Tony Maddox of CNN International, Jason Maloney of the Bureau for International Reporting, David Reiter of ABC News, and Seth Stein of Northwestern University.