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News reporting of the January 12, 2010, Haiti earthquake: The role of common misconceptions

David Alexander, PhD


The Haiti earthquake of January 12, 2010, was one of the worst seismic disasters of the last half-century. Given the severity of damage to infrastructure and the gravity of the humanitarian crisis, it was particularly difficult for journalists to report the situation accurately during the early stages of the crisis. In relation to the Haitian catastrophe, this article considers 10 misassumptions that commonly appear in news reports about disaster. They include “myths” about the inevitability of disease, the prevalence of panic, and the need to impose martial law. Behind the misassumptions is a widely disseminated but wholly inaccurate model of the breakdown of society, which is greatly at variance with the observational definition by sociologists of the postdisaster “therapeutic community.” This article concludes that the misassumptions are, at least in part, alive and well. Some of the less responsible news media enthusiastically propagated them without checking the reality on the ground in Haiti. However, there are signs that at last the more thoughtful media are prepared to question the myths of disaster. In part this is clearly because influential people in the humanitarian relief effort have made a special effort to make journalists aware that certain notions are misassumptions— for example, that unburied dead bodies give rise to disease epidemics. Nevertheless, it is not yet clear whether we are entering a new age of more responsible reporting of disasters by the mass media.


news reporting, journalism, earthquake, disaster, emergency relief, misconception, Haiti

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