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by Tanya Golash-Boza, University of Kansas
A man examines the damage of a Port-au-Prince
school building following the January 12 earthquake.
On January 25, 2010, I left for Haiti from the Dominican Republic with a team of five people from the Haitian non-governmental organization, Fondation Avenir, to meet with members of Haitian civil society to assess the possibilities for rebuilding the country in the aftermath of the devastating January 12 earthquake.
As we drove along the road from the border town of Malpasse to Port-au-Prince, the first major problem we encountered was a traffic jam in Croix-de-Bouquet, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. Closer to Port-au-Prince, we began to see more evidence of the destruction caused by the 12 earthquake—flattened houses, tent cities, and lack of electricity. We saw few signs of the widespread civil unrest reported in the mainstream media. To the contrary, we found the city remarkably calm, with people selling goods on the streets, public transportation packed, and long lines outside money transfer outlets, cell phone stores, and waiting outside relief organizations.
As the electrical grid still was not functional, the city was quiet after dark. Many people slept in the streets. Some did this because they had lost their homes, others because their homes were unsafe, and still others because they feared there would be another earthquake. At these tent cities, despite the poor conditions, there was order and community. People arranged their tents into straight lines, left spaces for public use, and organized a security crew to watch over them at night and to ensure that cars did not trample people sleeping in the streets.
Press accounts of Haiti in the earthquake’s aftermath emphasized the purported lack of public safety in Port-au-Prince. Many in the media reported that criminals were on the loose, rapes were commonplace, and banditry was omnipresent. As sociologists, we expect these sorts of reports after disasters, especially disasters involving people of African descent. It is our responsibility to insist on a more humane and accurate depiction of social life after disasters. There are three main points of contention that sociologists can address in terms of the popular representations of Haiti after the earthquake.
The first point is the complete lack of historical context in media reports, especially of the role of the United States in Haiti over the course of the 20th century. For example, knowing about the U.S. occupations of Haiti contextualizes the current militarized response to the earthquake. The second point is that civil unrest and social violence are not common responses to disasters, yet typically are found in media portrayals of disasters. Disaster sociologis, Kathleen Tierney, University of Colorado, and colleagues point out that not only do mass media consistently propagate the myth that lawlessness is a consequence of natural disasters, but that such myths justify a militarized response to these events (2006). The third point is that we can expect media representations of people of African descent to be influenced by "controlling images"—gendered and classed stereotypes about black people perpetuated by the media (Collins 2004).
As sociologists, one of our tasks is to educate the public on how to interpret the news and distinguish verifiable evidence from suppositions. We should participate in public debates and inform others how ideas about race, gender, and class influence perspectives. In the case of Haiti, preconceived notions about black men’s sexuality have lent credibility to the idea that rapes are omnipresent, even with flimsy evidence. Ideas about black criminality also make it easier to believe that Haitians are looting and robbing. Many of the media reports of lawlessness are based on what most sociologists would consider flawed evidence (i.e., a woman hearing noises in a tent at night; a statement by a public official, and suppositions by "experts" from afar).
Many of the reports that lead with headlines about rampant rapes in Haiti are based almost entirely on one quote from Haiti’s national police Chief Mario Andresol: "With the blackout that’s befallen the Haitian capital, bandits are taking advantage to harass and rape women and young girls under the tents." This statement, the evidence for which is unclear, has been picked up by many major media outlets. The diffusion of this statement has led to the widespread belief that rapes and banditry are omnipresent in Port-au-Prince following the earthquake.
I was in Port-au-Prince from January 25-28, 2010, and did not see any proof that social banditry reigned. Instead, I saw people in Port-au-Prince organizing themselves into groups and providing their own security. Of course, I do not have evidence that the news accounts are false. My perspective as a sociologist, however, inclines me to ask for the evidence, to consider the data journalists are citing, and to realize that racialized notions of black criminality and sexuality make it likely for mass media outlets to pick up on these sorts of statements and to blow them out of proportion.
Rapes are widely underreported everywhere in the world, and it is not my intention to add to sexist contentions that rape is not a widespread problem. Instead, I refer to disaster researchers, such as Alice Fothergill, University of Vermont, who have confirmed that intimate partner violence often increases in the aftermath of disasters, yet less is known about sexual assault by strangers. John Barnshaw, University of Delaware, found in the case of Hurricane Katrina that reports of rapes tended to be based on rumors, not eyewitness accounts (2005).
Several mainstream media outlets stated that escaped prisoners from the destroyed jail are going on rampages and raping women. The animalistic discourse in headlines of these articles such as "Bandits going wild in Haiti" and "Escaped criminals raping, running wild in Haiti" are indicative of how Haitians are de-humanized and myths are spread. There is a tendency within popular discourse in the United States to associate blacks with unbridled sexuality and criminality. It is also worth noting that 80 percent of the escaped prisoners were in pre-trial detention, and thus that it is inaccurate to refer to them as criminals, as they had yet to be convicted of any crime. In actuality, the likelihood that escaped prisoners from the Haitian prison would randomly attack women in tent cities is ridiculous. Most rapes occur by people the victim knows.
These sensationalist headlines create the impression that Haitians are savages, and that a military response is the best response to the current disaster. As Tierney et al. suggest, the portrayal of lawlessness justifies a militarized response to the disaster. The widespread fear that Haiti will descend further into lawlessness without a U.S. military presence prevents people in the United States from seeing that the military presence is doing little to alleviate the effects of the disaster, and that resources that could be used to provide Haitians with food and shelter are being misallocated to public safety.
For the mainstream media, however, headlines such as "Haitians removing rubble with bare hands" or "There is nowhere for residents of tent cities to use bathrooms" or "The military are great at setting up camps in Haiti—their own, that is" are not as likely to pull in the advertising dollars.
We sociologists should advise our students and our communities on the ways profit-oriented mass media corporations distort reality, and to direct people to alternative news outlets for a more balanced understanding of the world. The focus of disaster reports should instead be on the need and the cooperation that occurs.
*The author thanks disaster scholars John Barnshaw and Alice Fothergill for their insights, which improved this report.
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2004. Black Sexual Politics Routledge: New York.
Tierney, Kathleen, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski. 2006. "Metaphors Matter: Disaster Myths, Media Frames, and Their Consequences in Hurricane Katrina" The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.
Barnshaw, John. 2005. "The Continuing Significance of Race and Class among Houston Hurricane Katrina Evacuees" Natural Hazards Observer 2:11-12.