How to Write about Haiti


Actor Sean Penn, who is helping manage a camp of displaced earthquake victims in Haiti, is making pointed criticisms of journalists for dropping the ball on coverage of Haiti. He’s wrong. I’ve been on the ground in Port-au-Prince working as an independent journalist for the past ten months. I’m an earthquake survivor who’s seen the big-time reporters come and go. They’re doing such a stellar job and I want to help out, so I’ve written this handy guide for when they come back on the one-year anniversary of the January quake! (Cross-published on the Huffington Post, inspired by this piece in Granta.)

For starters, always use the phrase ‘the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.’ Your audience must be reminded again of Haiti’s exceptional poverty. It’s doubtful that other articles have mentioned this fact.

You are struck by the ‘resilience’ of the Haitian people. They will survive no matter how poor they are. They are stoic, they rarely complain, and so they are admirable. The best poor person is one who suffers quietly. A two-sentence quote about their misery fitting neatly into your story is all that’s needed.

On your last visit you became enchanted with Haiti. You are in love with its colorful culture and feel compelled to return. You care so much about these hard-working people. You are here to help them. You are their voice. They cannot speak for themselves.

Don’t listen if the Haitians speak loudly or become unruly. You might be in danger, get out of there. Protests are not to be taken seriously. The participants were probably all paid to be there. All Haitian politicians are corrupt or incompetent. Find a foreign authority on Haiti to talk in stern terms about how they must shape up or cede power to incorruptible outsiders.

The US Embassy and United Nations always issue warnings that demonstrations are security threats. It is all social unrest. If protesters are beaten, gassed, or shot at by UN peacekeepers, they probably deserved it for getting out of control. Do not investigate their constant claims of being abused.

It was so violent right after the January 2010 earthquake. ‘Looters’ fought over goods ‘stolen’ from collapsed stores. Escaped prisoners were causing mayhem. It wasn’t necessary to be clear about how many people were actually hurt or died in fighting. The point is that it was scary.

Now many of those looters are ‘squatters’ in ‘squalid’ camps. Their tent cities are ‘teeming’ with people, like anthills. You saw your colleagues use these words over and over in their reports, so you should too. You do not have time to check a thesaurus before deadline.

Point out that Port-au-Prince is overcrowded. Do not mention large empty plots of green land around the city. Of course, it is not possible to explain that occupying US Marines forcibly initiated Haiti’s shift from distributed, rural growth to centralized governance in the capital city. It will not fit within your word count. Besides, it is ancient history.

If you must mention Haiti’s history, refer vaguely to Haiti’s long line of power-hungry, corrupt rulers. The ‘iron-fisted’ Duvaliers, for example. Don’t mention 35 years of US support for that dictatorship. The slave revolt on which Haiti was founded was ‘bloody’ and ‘brutal.’ These words do not apply to modern American offensives in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today, Cite Soleil is the most dangerous slum in the world. There is no need to back up this claim with evidence. It is ‘sprawling.’ Again, there’s no time for the thesaurus. Talk about ruthless gangs, bullet holes, pigs and trash. Filth everywhere. Desperate people are eating cookies made of dirt and mud! That always grabs the reader’s attention.

Stick close to your hired security or embed yourself with UN troops. You can’t walk out on your own to profile generous, regular folk living in tight-knit neighborhoods. They are helpless victims, grabbing whatever aid they can. You haven’t seen them calmly dividing food amongst themselves, even though it’s common practice.

Better to report on groups that periodically enter from outside to deliver food to starving kids (take photos!). Don’t talk to the youth of Cite Soleil about how proud they are of where they come from. Probably gang members. Almost everyone here supports ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But their views aren’t relevant. There is no need to bring politics into your story.

You can’t forget to do another story about restaveks. Child slaves. It’s so shocking. There is little new information about restaveks, so just recycle old statistics. Present it as a uniquely Haitian phenomenon. Enslaved Haitian farmworkers in southern Florida, for example, aren’t nearly as interesting.

When you come back here in six months, there will still be a lot of desperate poor people who have received little to no help. There are many big, inefficient foreign NGOs in Haiti. Clearly something is wrong. Breathless outrage is the appropriate tone.

But do not try to get to the bottom of the issue. Be sure to mention that aid workers are doing the best they can. Their positive intentions matter more than the results. Don’t name names of individuals or groups who are performing poorly. Reports about food stocks sitting idly in individual warehouses are good. Investigations into why NGOs are failing to effect progress in Haiti are boring and too difficult. Do not explore Haitian-led alternatives to foreign development schemes. There are none. Basically, don’t do any reporting that could change the system.

On the other hand, everyone here loves Bill Clinton and Wyclef Jean. There are no dissenting views on this point. Never mind that neither lives here. Never mind that Clinton admitted to destroying Haiti’s domestic rice economy in the ’90s. Never mind that Jean’s organization has repeatedly mismanaged relief funds. That’s all in the past. They represent Haiti’s best hope for the future. Their voices matter, which means the media must pay close attention to them, which means their voices matter, which means the media must …

Finally, when you visit Haiti again: Stay in the same expensive hotels. Don’t live close to the people. Produce lots of stories and make money. Pull up in your rented SUV to a camp of people who lost their homes, still living under the wind and rain. Step out into the mud with your waterproof boots. Fresh notepad in hand. That ragged-looking woman is yelling at you that she needs help, not another foreigner taking her photo. Her 3-year-old boy is standing there, clinging to her leg. Her arms are raised, mouth agape, and you can’t understand her because you don’t speak Haitian Creole.

Remove the lens cap and snap away. And when you’ve captured enough of Haiti’s drama, fly away back home.

33 thoughts on “How to Write about Haiti”

  1. Thank you Ansel for being real and upfront about how Haiti has been covered by the media pre and post earthquake. The disparity between the media and reality has keep Haitians abroad away and has truly branded Haiti as a place similar to hell. Its complex here nonetheless and no one will ever understand without being here and being with the people.

    Big Love and Keep Telling Our Truth

  2. Sadly, bad and repetitive journalism isn’t only confined to Haiti. Haiti has just been flooded with coverage, 95% of which is cliche’ and non-constructive.

    Of course my issue is that I witnessed a perfectly peaceful demonstration that was gassed by the Haitian SWAT teams…but the next day all I heard about was that it had been done by the UN. I think there are more wrongs that fingers to count them in Haiti, but sometimes those fingers end up pointing the wrong way.

  3. And whatever you do, don’t mention the Bambam – the “six families” actually running Haiti (with much overseas assistance). They sound like a very powerful mafia!

    1. which families are the bambam…. i’ve heard a name or two but am not sure who they are or how they benefit from their positions. mind saying?

  4. I don’t know how you did it, but I think you were ancestrally inspired by the voice of the Haitian people. We are absolutely a resilient nation, there’s no doubt about it. An incredibly resilient poor nation, because we are wisely and docilely living in poverty. As I always say to my friends, poverty is a step in life and not a definite state. We may be a destitute nation, but we are not mentally poor. A nation with no existing health care system, no welfare, no social security,no unemployment benefits, no nothing. How do we survive? Why has massive suicide case never been mentioned in Haiti? As our former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide put it his book entitled “Eyes of the Heart”:” To see the richness of the Haitian people we must examine cultural factors: wealth of humor, warmth of character, ease of laughing, dignity,solidarity. We have traditions in Haiti that allow us to share food when we can. We raise the child of a friend or relative who cannot (P. 21).” We are not stupid,but wise and docile.Unfortunately, we are quelled down in Haiti by a doglike system that only eat the leftover of the nation….

  5. Not to underestimate the difficulties, but what I miss in journalism about Haiti is substantive writing anywhere about dissidents. There must be quite a history of leftist political thought, debate and organized action. How could Haitians not think, talk and write about intervention and imperialism, about capitalism and its alternatives, especially now that so many nearby countries are going through such profound changes? True, we do read about Famni Lavalas demonstrations on Aristide’s birthday demanding his return, but that’s about it. What are organized leftists thinking now and what are their plans? Has that important sector of Haitian political life been wiped out or silenced entirely by coups, casques bleus and the earthquake? I certainly don’t want to believe that’s the case.

  6. Ansel,

    I would like to thank you for articulating so well my thoughts and feelings about the media reports that have come out of Haiti since the earthquake. Even well before the quake, in fact, because this type of nonsense has been purged up over and over in even the most well intentioned reporting. Enough with the good intentions being reported, we need to know the results. Each report I read about Haiti nearly always follows the most dramatic format possible. Typical facts like “poorest country in the western hemisphere” in it –as if it were Haiti’s damn last name! And the history? Forget it. Minor details as far as they are concerned. It’s ridiculous. And then I get mad when people try to talk about Haiti because all they know is from this idiotic stories that make Haiti seem like a Lifetime movie.
    I was in Haiti after the quake and worked in Carrefour Aviation. I’m happy to know we have you there (and that you are a fellow Texan too!) reporting the reality…kimbe fem nan travay la fre’m. I’ll be reading in the future.

    Mesi anpil,

    ~Scarlett Pope

  7. This is a great post – exchange “Haiti” for any other “developing country” and it will also fit perfectly well. Too sad that too many people think readers want to read about the steretypes they have in mind rather than offer them the chance to overcome these stereotypes.

  8. the sad part is that “readers” or sheeple are fed this kind of bullshit journalism you report willingly and happily to steer up the emotions they live on, as in world cup, x got talent and on and on….

    luckily and as bob marley said, you can fool some people sometimes but you can’t fool all the people all the time, Haiti and every other oppressed peoples of this planet will strive DESPITE outside “help” and hopefully overcome the victim role forced upon them. Watch “the coconut revolution” for an example on how to do it.

  9. This is one of the most powerfully written pieces I have ever read. Thank you for expressing how the vast majority of us feel about not only the way the ‘coverage’ of Haiti is sensationalized, but 95% of all that is covered in the world today.

    In my opinion the words ‘news, reporting and journalism’ should be replaced with the blanket term ‘media’. Because (with the exception of a small few) reporting (objectively and accurately giving information about and/or bringing attention to using truth and facts) is not what is being done anymore.

    Peace, Light and Take Care!

  10. Dear Ansel,

    The anger is palpable, and I know it in myself. Thanks for doing this piece.

    Maybe we could see another piece on the fact that that type of coverage ( AP, Reuters, etc., and all the guys and girls who simply copy from them ) is what makes the whole international mistreatment of Haiti possible. The publics in the US and Canada, EU, and the rest of the so called western/ whealthy Nations see this type of stuff about dangerous people, low/black people- though loveable, too poor to think kind of people, can’t get it together kind of people, and strange (vodou) kind of people – and the ‘good’ blue helmets, -whatever it is they think of at AP&Assoc.- and since it mostly seems to justify the US/France/Canada governments’ policies, the western citizens buy it.

    If the media stories were to bring what really is going on in Haiti, these policies would not fly! I’m looking from Canada, the US, and Germany.

    In Canada most people haven’t got any idea what their gov. is doing to Haiti. If they did, they would not tolerate it… Even the Can. parliamentarians dealing in committee rechew the media- BS, and then make more policy along those lines.

    In short, the media has a key role and mega influence on the reality of Haiti. They cover the managers of Haiti from the view of their publics.You know this,- but could this key role of the media on Haiti be brought out in one of your next pieces?

    Thanks again for the lovely satire !

    Christian Heyne

  11. It took a few trips to get out of the hotels and down to Rue A Martial, but well worth the shift to a different kind of neighborhood. Fear is used to keep things static in PAP and Haiti in general. If journalists can keep the fear quotient high we can continue to marginalize Haiti as too scary, too immune to change, too dependent, too lazy, too complacent, and more. Reporting tinged with hubris is tiring. Tell the truth and let it stand. Thanks for your work – I enjoy reading and looking. Peace.

  12. A little self righteous… I’ve been on the ground all year here. All these reporters do is talk, wether it’s commenting on the situation or critiquing the others of their kind about they’re the only honest reporter intouch with the people….it’s all crap. The whole media engine does little but sensationalize, one way or the other.

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