Global mass media often sensationalise disasters: Disaster sells. Depending on how they cover the disaster, the media can either help or hinder relief efforts. Jude Fernando, a Clark University professor specialising in humanitarian assistance in complex emergencies and natural disasters, explains how repressive governments often play up stereotypical images of alleged looting to transform a humanitarian crisis into a law-and-order crisis.
What is called “looting” in news reports is often the desperate search for food and water by disaster victims. Local law enforcement agencies often take these “photo opportunities” to transform a humanitarian crisis into a law-and-order crisis. Authorities are more preoccupied with protecting property than in rescuing people. We would be appalled were we not already seduced by media stereotypes that make us believe the worst of people living in developing countries. These inaccurate representations create real fear. Media criminalisation inadvertently justifies the further militarization of civilian society by a repressive Haitian government. In addition, fearful aid organisations waste resources by needlessly investing in security.
Media do not give much coverage to the ongoing disaster of poverty in Haiti, even though poverty has taken far more lives than the earthquake did. It simply isn't “news.” Just as reportage of the tsunami in Sri Lanka failed to contextualise disaster response in light of the ongoing conflict between the government and the Tamil Tigers, so did the coverage of the Haiti earthquake fail to examine disaster response in the context of a history of repressive government.
Media enthusiasm lasts only a short time, and it milks sensationalist images for all they are worth. In the end, however, sensationalism works against the interests of disaster victims. Initially sensational media attract attention and a flood of donations. Repetition of those images and stories, however, desensitises the public and results in a quick drop-off of interest in and funding for disaster relief.