"When the Media is the Disaster" in Guernica (January 21/10), demonstrates just how "media outlets often call everything looting and thereby incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as a hysterical overreaction on the part of the armed authorities."
Solnit gives examples of photo captions that either presume a great deal about what is going on or isolate circumstances that make something look especially bad without showing the whole context.
For example, she cites the case of a photo with the caption: “A looter makes off with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked store.” For another photo, the caption reads: “A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated milk.”
In both cases, Solnit believes that the only certainty is that the media are too quick with the word "looting," a response that privileges property over the survival of the people.
The "looter" with the bag of milk may have taken it to feed his and others' starving children. And whom would he pay and with what? Calling such an act a crime in the situation in Haiti would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. The "looter" with the fabric may well have been going to use the cloth to make a tent or sunshelter for some of the many homeless. Again, in the circumstances in Haiti, a most logical response.
Solnit gives these and other examples, and these possible interpretations, to demonstrate the secondary victimization by the media of the already victimized. She says that the same thing happened in New Orleans after Katrina.
But, according to Solnit and sociologists who study human behaviour after disasters:
Personal gain is the last thing most people are thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster. In that phase, the survivors are almost invariably more altruistic and less attached to their own property, less concerned with the long-term questions of acquisition, status, wealth, and security, than just about anyone not in such situations imagines possible. (The best accounts from Haiti of how people with next to nothing have patiently tried to share the little they have and support those in even worse shape than them only emphasize this disaster reality.) Crime often drops in the wake of a disaster.Solnit believes that the media are obsessed with property and security and often exacerbate already bad situations. She insists: "We need to banish the word “looting” from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities."
"We live and die by words and ideas, and it matters desperately that we get them right."
In Haiti, we need to get it right, and soon.