By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18

Catherine Porter stands at a podium.

Catherine Porter tells the room about her reporting in Haiti. // Photo by: Sherry Li

When foreign journalists descend upon places recently torn apart by natural disasters, they are often given more access than they are used to at home.

But Canada’s bureau chief for the New York Times, Catherine Porter said if you want to cover tragedy with respect and sincerity, you have to think critically in those moments of access and treat foreign victims like you would treat victims at home.

At the Ryerson Review of Journalism’s fall conference, Covering Disaster: A Critical Lens on Nov. 21, Porter recalled the time she was led into a room inside one of the few hospitals left standing in Port-au-Prince after the 2010 earthquake hit Haiti.

Inside the room she saw a naked woman giving birth on top of a bare metal table.

I’ll tell you why I left that room, because I think that one of the things we need to do is treat victims in foreign places just as we would treat the victims in our home. We have to be respectful. We have to be decent,” she said to the audience inside the Oakham Lounge at Ryerson University.

A few days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake rumbled through Haiti in Jan. 12 2010, Porter landed on the devastated island with her colleague, Brett Popplewell, to report on the stories of Haitians in recovery for the Toronto Star. The failing infrastructure of the island had crumbled like icing sugar, killing roughly 316, 000 people and leaving 1.5 million homeless, she said. It was her first time covering a natural disaster.

A mantra I repeat to myself often, all the time in this job, whether it’s a natural disaster overseas or at home is, it’s just my job today; this is this person’s life,” she said.

Porter said without a fixer or a deeper understanding of the country, she made cultural assumptions that lead to mistakes in her reporting. She admitted a better understanding of Haiti would have deepened her coverage and reminded journalists that doing in-depth research is extremely important.

A panel at the conference titled, Outside Looking In, offered the perspective of industry professionals outside of journalism, on covering disasters. All three panelists agreed fixers need more credit and respect for their work.

Panelist, Rachel Pulfur, executive director of Journalists for Human Rights, told the audience that this lack of respect has lead to an “industry blind spot.”

“That doesn’t really treat fixers as real journalists even though they’re working for Juba Monitor in Vietnam or Al Ra’i in Jordan for years and years and years and yet for some reason…there is this two-tier system,” she said.

Next to Pulfur at the table sat, Saurabh Dani shaking his head in agreement. The Southeast Asia disaster risk management specialist for the World Bank, said international journalists need to stop calling fixers, fixers and call them local journalists instead. 

Panelist, Saurabh Dani says journalists need to stop calling fixers, “fixers. // Photo by: Sherry Li

“If you’re willing to trust your local journalist, who have definitely better knowledge [of the place] than you do…you can extract more knowledge from them,” he said.

Columbia Journalism Review’s digital writer Matthew Ingram said these habits of parachute journalism are the worst thing to happen to foreign reporting.

“I wish journalists would just go into the country and hand all of the tools to a fixer and say, ‘I’m done,’ now you do whatever you can,” the chief digital writer for the Columbia Review of Journalism said.

Ingram said parachute journalism tends to limit journalists to the surface level stories of a disaster without looking into the larger picture.

Dani agreed adding that journalists covering disaster need to stop reporting on disasters as isolated incidents.

“It’s really not an accident that we’ve had forest fires of the size we saw in Canada at the same time we saw forest fires in California and forest fires in Portugal and Greece,” he said. “Climate change is in the room it’s not anymore something that you can discuss whether it’s happening or not… it also helps build the story beyond that single disaster.”

The final panel of the day-long conference titled, Covering the Aftermath, agreed doing extensive research on disasters is also important to be able to link the incident to the larger picture.

TVO Climate Watch writer, Tim Alamenciak told journalists at the conference that it’s okay to ask experts for help understanding difficult concepts during research. The journalist told journalists to be prepared for interviews but said it’s alright to not know everything.

Tim Alamenciak talks about the times he has had to ask experts to explain complex topics in detail. // Photo by: Sherry Li

“You need them to explain it to you in a way that you can explain it to your audience and people who are good science communicators won’t hold that against you. If they get upset because you ask them to go deeper into detail, that’s on them.”

Toronto Star journalist, Jayme Poisson, sat alongside Alamenciak on the panel. She conceded journalists focus less on knowing everything and more on the structure of the interview.

“All of the interviews I’ve had that didn’t go well it was because I didn’t think about the structure of the interview,” she said.

Both agreed it’s important to have a good understanding to be sufficiently equipped to better inform your audience.