Behind the headlines: raising local voices in Haiti

At 16.53 local time on Tuesday 12 January, 2010 an earthquake with a Moment magnitude of 7.0 struck Haiti, with an epicentre approximately 16 miles from the country’s capital Port au Prince.

Almost immediately the country hit the headlines and was rarely out of the news for a few weeks. NGOs and the media came flying in to help and report. Yet, often the voices heard in the media were not those of the locals, but of crisis professionals, analysts and politicians.

This didn’t mean that locals weren’t involved in picking up the pieces, simply that we rarely heard from them. Some of this could be put down to a matter of language translation – a fairly predictable scenario when going into a foreign country, and whilst the first language of Haiti is the less spoken Creole the second language of the country is French. But there are many other possible reasons.

Two projects have attempted to rectify this situation:

The Kenyan Ushahidi, a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for crowdsourced information collection, visualization and interactive mapping, was founded to re-balance these very situations, as this video explains:

When the earthquake in Haiti struck, Ushahidi and mapping volunteers quickly got into action. Both enabling the reporting of incidents and information on the ground (via mobile SMS, emails and online) and mapping the dramatically changed landscape, infrastructure and cities from satellite pictures above. The result was a constantly updated interactive map.

The following presentation given by Juliana Roitch at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia shows what was involved and just some of the challenges and processes that they had to learn on the job. Processes and reports that are still ongoing.

The web and film documentary Goudou Goudou, the ignored voices of reconstruction is another project that aims to re-address the balance of voices telling the story of Haiti.

Filmed and produced by Benoit Cassegrain and Giodarno Cossu – who together run Solidar’IT – it tells the stories of several characters and their lives since the earthquake. The film was recorded in Creole and French during 2010, and has yet to be fully translated into English (I’m sure the film makers would be up for discussions if you are interested in changing that), but the following trailer is available, and gives a glimpse into the day to day lives of those that the earthquake effected.

Both projects highlight in their different ways that we need to change how report crisis’. That we consider who can report as well as what and how language should be considered right from the start.

The ethics of real-time social reporting

Paul Carr has written a thought provoking post for TechCrunch looking at the role of social media and real-time citizen reporting in last week’s Fort Hood shootings.

He asks how, even with the best intentions, how many of us are often drawn into a acting in a way of “look at me looking at this” and may be losing a sense of our humanity:

…none of us think we’re being selfish or egotistic when we tweet something, or post a video on YouTube or check-in using someone’s address on Foursquare. It’s just what we do now, no matter whether we’re heading out for dinner or witnessing a massacre on an Army base. Like Lord of the Flies, or the Stanford Prison Experiment, as long as we’re all losing our perspective at the same time – which, as a generation growing up with social media we are – then we don’t realise that our humanity is leaking away until its too late.

He then points to this video, which seems to summarise these darker sides of our human nature.

Balancing such difficulties and how to best report breaking news is something that journalists are trained to do, although mistakes do happen particularly in the highly competitive atmosphere of 24 hour news. Journalists also usually work as part of a team and rarely does news go live without editorial decisions being made.

Although not wide spread, when consuming news from main stream sources many of us have learnt how to interpret what we are hearing, reading or watching. We have learnt some basic literacies, such as the brand identity, the ownership of a newspaper, editorial standards, advertorials, PR. We also roughly know, or think we do, the agenda or philospohy of a media player, mention any of the following and you will immediately have thoughts about them: Fox News, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Channel 4.

We have learnt these skills over time, and as much as there is a need for citizens to be aware of ethics and their humanity around what they broadcast, we also have a responsibility to be literate in understanding what our friends, colleagues, followers broadcast to us and how we respond. Do we repeat what’s told us – which is now only takes a click – or do we take a few moments to consider a different response, to question what’s being told us, whether it breaches someone else’s privacy, whether it is appropriate?

In some ways these problems aren’t new. Gossip and news has always travelled quickly. What’s different is that the reach and speed now possible and the wider and deeper impact there in.

Also see the reflections on Paul’s post by Euan Semple and Antony Mayfield.

UPDATE 6pm 8/11/2009: In preparation for some other work later this week I came across the Charter for Media Literacy written by the Media Literacy Task Force which was set up in 2004 with support from the UK government’s Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

The task force state that: “A media literate society is therefore not a luxury, it is a necessity in the 21st Century – for social, economic, cultural and political reasons”.

And it has has high goals:

If people are to participate fully at work or in their community, or communicate effectively with family, friends and colleagues globally, or consume media intelligently they need to be media savvy. They need to understand how media works and to feel comfortable questioning what they watch and read. They need a sense of who knows or owns what, and to what extent what you see is really what you get. And, very importantly, they need to become confident in using and exploiting the possibilities of new devices and media channels.

[Full Charter here – PDF]

Updated in July 2009 it deserves commendation and has been signed up to by many of the major media organisations and educators in the UK.

But what it possibly lacks is the need for awareness around some of the more legal and ethical issues that surround social media. Not only that of privacy, accuracy and verification, but also issues such as copyright and data protection.

It’s more than just media literacy really. As Antony Mayfield summarises it is literacy across “social/digital/media”.

UPDATE 10/11/2009: Also worth reading on this subject: Bill Thompson’s BBC column for this week.