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Journalism is not a particularly esteemed profession, but its capacity to bear witness remains one of its more redeeming attributes. At moments like this in Haiti, a journalist's function as a witness can be relatively uncomplicated, in comparison to, say, the processes of political or investigative reporting. In the field during a natural disaster of this scale, you do feel at times ghoulish and intrusive upon both the grief of survivors and in relation to the more directly useful efforts of rescuers and humanitarian relief workers. And yet all of those classes of participants in the crisis will recognize, most of the time, that journalism helpfully amplifies their own condition or potential.
I learned something about journalism while covering my first earthquake, in northwest Iran, in June, 1990. Tens of thousands of people died. After some travail, a small group of us newspaper and broadcast correspondents from the West arrived by helicopter, after dark, in a flattened village. I was still pretty green but I had seen enough death and devastation by then to know that it would not affect me emotionally. Nonetheless, as I stumbled into the village off the helicopter, I felt paralyzed, professionally. There were no houses or buildings left standing; there were so many dead; there was so much audible suffering. What was one supposed to write in one's notebook to capture and convey this scene?
My memory of what followed is vivid. I was in the company of one of those lions of foreign correspondence at the Los Angeles Times—I think it was Rone Tempest. Perhaps he noticed that I seemed confused. Anyway, he said—grunted, actually—like some veteran baseball player spitting tobacco in a nineteen-thirties movie: "Make lists—all the little things." And so I did. A tin cooking pot with rice still in it. Five boots, none matching. A bicycle wheel protruding from a pile of rocks. Like that. We rode back to Tehran that night on a bus. I wrote my story on one of those ancient Radio Shack portables. When I flipped through my notebook with a flashlight, I gradually came to realize that I had something particular—and for American audiences so distanced from revolutionary Iran—something useful to say.
Upon repetition, covering earthquakes gradually became less pure. The reason is that as a newspaper correspondent, at least, one became schooled in the editor-feeding subgenres of earthquake coverage. These subgenre stories passed like months on a calendar across the twelve days that generally constitutes the entire attention span of editors, broadcast producers, and their audiences. Subgenre pearls which one can anticipate from Haiti but about which one should perhaps not be overly cynical include: The Late Miracle, approximately on day five, in which an improbable survivor is dug out by heroic search teams from a foreign country; The Interpretation of Meaning, a story to be filed on Sundays in Christian cultures and Fridays in Muslim ones, chronicling the efforts of religious leaders to explain God's will in this instance (I recall sitting, riveted, on a press platform in Tehran, listening to Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani deliver a remarkable Friday sermon about science and Allah); and Heading to the Exits, in which the laundry-less journalist forecasts a slow recovery complicated by political fallout and imperfect relief efforts, while implying that he/she will return over the ensuing months to chronicle the full course of the recovery.
For now, however, I tune in and read about Haiti with an appetite for small, humanizing detail that gradually accumulates in a crisis of this magnitude, ensuring that it will not be neglected—or, later, forgotten. Already there is much outstanding journalism on the airwaves and in print —notwithstanding, in these times, the considerable expense. Technology, increasingly, makes us all witnesses to crises. And yet, only those journalists intrepid enough to find their way forward, independently, can focus our lenses.