< Danger In Numbers


Friday, January 22, 2010


BOB GARFIELD: We know that many of you, our listeners, have been following the coverage from Haiti over the past week and a half, and some of you have written to us about it, particularly about the sheer numbers of reporters who've made their way to the stricken island. Listener Benjamin Bombard wrote, quote, “Judging from the coverage, one could easily conclude that there were more journalists on the ground in Haiti than there are aide workers.” That’s not the case, but it may seem that way when we hear that, according to Slate, CNN had roughly 75 reporters and support staff in Haiti, while The New Republic reported that CBS had 50 staffers there and FOX 25. Listener Buffy Caflisch [sp?] from Chevy Chase, Maryland asks, quote, “Wouldn't it be possible to have one big news service, possibly on a rotating basis, so that the highest priority can be given to flying in medical personnel and supplies, food, water, etc, that will help the people who are so desperately in need?” Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic, and he agrees that there are too many members of the media in Haiti.

NOAM SCHEIBER: A few days after the earthquake you had hundreds of journalists there, and it was just hard to believe that they weren't taxing an already fairly weak infrastructure there. There were constant streams of stories about teams of nurses and rescue workers who were marooned at airports and military bases because of the clogging and congestion at the Port-au Prince-airport. Once they got into the country, obviously the journalists had to have places to stay, food to eat, flashlights, batteries. Even if they did not think of themselves as directly taking food out of the mouths of Haitians, clearly they were bidding up the prices of these things and making it more difficult for people on the ground there to get access to them. In fairness, some news organizations actually shipped in their own supplies, but then the question arises, well [LAUGHS] why not ship in supplies for relief, rather than to serve journalists who are on the ground.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, so a major news story, unspeakable tragedy. News organizations have to report on it for their readers, listeners and viewers. What’s the solution?

NOAM SCHEIBER: Well, my thought is a solution that we journalists use in other contexts, which is the idea of a pool. And I think it’s most commonly used in coverage of the White House. There are dozens of news organizations and probably hundreds of journalists who are responsible for reporting on the daily comings and goings of the President. Obviously, those hundreds of journalists can't be in earshot and have a straight line view of the President at every moment. So the arrangement that we as a press corps have arrived at is the pool. And the person who is the pool representative at that particular moment writes up a dispatch, a very literal take on what the President has done. It gets distributed through the White House press operation to the rest of the White House press corps. It’s very easy to imagine something similar working in Haiti or in disaster zones generally, so that you would have only a fraction of the reporters on the ground at any moment.

BOB GARFIELD: Apart from their missions to serve their own audiences, news organizations are also businesses and in many cases in competition with one another. I don't know if any executive producer of any news show saw your piece and rolled his eyes and made a vulgar gesture, but I can certainly imagine him doing that – like, yeah, nice piece, Noam. What reality are you living in?

NOAM SCHEIBER: Frankly, I think that competition generally serves us well. I mean, we want dozens of news organizations reporting on the presidential administration because it’s the most important institution in the world, so the average citizen and the social good is very well served, even if there’s a bit of redundancy. But I think this is a unique circumstance, and there are other unique circumstances in which we set aside the brutal logic of competition and agree to some syndicate that a bunch of news organizations pitch in for a kind of common product. Just because you’re working from common raw data does not mean that all of your stories have to be identical and then you can't subsequently compete the same way that news organizations do for elections by using the same exit polls.

BOB GARFIELD: You write in your piece in The New Republic that journalists should, if they don't already, have a Hippocratic-like obligation at least to do no harm. Is this a clear-cut case of their very presence causing harm?

NOAM SCHEIBER: Obviously, there’s an irony in my piece, which is that had no reporters been down there, it would have been very difficult for me to have any concrete idea of the kind of logistical problems that were in play down there. So it’s absolutely essential that we have reporters down there. The question is - at what point do the returns diminish? While we can't pinpoint that moment with precision, we can sort of qualitatively look at it and say that if a given news organization has 50, 60, 75 reporters down there at once, we can certainly see when we go well beyond it and try to rein it in.

BOB GARFIELD: All right, Noam. Thank you so much.

NOAM SCHEIBER: Really enjoyed it.

BOB GARFIELD: Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at The New Republic.