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The Disaster Pool

How would I describe the Haiti coverage? Redundant.

Anderson Cooper was one of the first reporters to arrive in Haiti after last week’s massive earthquake. According to a Los Angeles Times account, the CNN personality raced to the airport upon hearing the news and caught the last flight out of New York. Unfortunately, the flight he caught deposited him in the Dominican Republic, not Haiti. That forced him to catch a lift the following morning on a government helicopter, which nearly collided with a plane in the congested skies above Port-au-Prince.

As it happens, though, Cooper’s epic journey to Haiti was fairly typical among journalists. Some scrambled to climb aboard chartered flights carrying medical personnel and aid workers. Some flew into the Dominican Republic and drove 12-18 hours along a treacherous road. CBS apparently spared no expense chartering a plane to get Katie Couric from the Dominican side of the island to the Haitian side. "When big stories break you have an obligation to cover this to absolute maximum of your ability," CBS national editor Bill Felling told the L.A. Times. "You can't quite get the power of this until you see people's faces and the extent to which they emote the pain that they are going through."

No doubt all this logistical derring-do has produced some indispensable reporting, opening the world’s eyes to the magnitude of the tragedy in Haiti and the depth of the need there. (Not to mention the still-far-too-infrequent successes. I had to choke back tears reading this New York Times account of one of the first post-earthquake births in Haiti.) On the other hand, it’s also produced an awful lot of … redundancy. In a wrenching dispatch yesterday, one Time magazine correspondent described how “dozens of reporters watched and filmed” as rescue teams dislodged bodies from the Hotel Montana, where a contingent of UN aid workers was trapped beneath the rubble.

Now, obviously, competing to send vivid images to readers and viewers is a big chunk of what news organizations do—and for good reason, since it generally serves the public interest. For that matter, even when social benefits aren’t obvious—I’m thinking of staged media spectacles like the Super Bowl or the Democratic National Convention—we rarely bat an eye over the redundancy of the coverage. We just chalk these things up to the cost of a vibrant news media.

But in Haiti, the dozens of redundant dispatches are stressing an already perilously fragile situation, as all the journalists scrambling to get into the country chew up valuable capacity and resources. Surely there’s a better way.

In fairness, the logistical nightmare of transporting people and supplies into a disaster zone isn’t always a zero sum game. Just because a TV correspondent takes an empty seat on a charter flight full of nurses and doctors doesn’t mean another nurse could have made it into the country sooner. One of the great frustrations of relief efforts is the massive inefficiency involved—no doubt many planes show up with fewer people and supplies than they could theoretically transport. Worse, many badly-needed supplies have entered Haiti only to sit idle for lack of a functioning distribution system. It would be a stretch to pin this problem on journalists.

Still, as of yesterday, CNN and CBS both had about 50 staffers in Haiti, and Fox had 25. (ABC and NBC almost certainly had similar numbers but we were unable to obtain them;  the major papers were considerably more restrained, with The New York Times and Washington Post both claiming about ten employees.) Given the sheer number of reporters descending on the country, and the earthquake’s toll on its already substandard infrastructure, it’s hard to believe the reporters aren’t at least delaying the arrival of relief workers and supplies.

The anecdotal evidence seems fairly overwhelming on this point, in any case: Dozens of nurses sat grounded in Chicago this weekend because they couldn’t get flights to Haiti. An 80-member search and rescue team languished at a Northern California military base last Friday because of bottlenecks at the Port-au-Prince airport. The World Food Program had no luck in its first few passes at landing a plane stocked with food late last week. A flight carrying an inflatable hospital belonging to the French aid group Doctors Without Borders was actually sent back to Santo Domingo. Etcetera, etcetera.

And, of course, the bottlenecks getting into the country are only the beginning. The stresses the journalists place on the country’s threadbare infrastructure once they arrive are just as troubling. In a country where much of the shelter has been destroyed, leaving tens of thousands of people wandering the streets, housing journalists poses a real opportunity cost. Worse, the journalists must eat, drink, and circulate once they’re in Haiti. As a practical matter, it means they often end up mooching off supplies intended for earthquake victims (one MSNBC correspondent was overjoyed to receive a 10-gallon donation of fuel from the U.S. Army). Or they drive up the price of goods available for disaster-stricken Haitians. This Boston Globe piece reports that the cost of flashlights, batteries, crackers, soda, and water has soared since the earthquake. Even if they aren’t the main culprit, it’s hard to believe journalists, with their U.S.-based expense accounts, aren’t contributing to the problem by outbidding locals, whether directly or indirectly.

I’m reluctant to point a finger at any particular media outlet because they’re simply doing what competitive businesses do—responding to a huge demand for a product by increasing the supply of it (in this case, images and accounts from Haiti). If TNR had the budget and the audience of CBS News, we’d probably have sent 50 people to greater Port-au-Prince, too. And we’d be proud of it! For all the vanity and adrenalin and competitive impulses driving the reporting out of Haiti, I’m idealistic enough to think the overwhelming majority of my colleagues are there for mostly noble reasons. They believe that telling the stories of hopeless people can help bring them hope—or at least arrange it so that others don’t suffer the same fate the next time around. (Even if Anderson Cooper sometimes takes the empathy-mongering to pornographic extremes. One typical Cooper quote from Port-au-Prince:  "There's nothing sadder than someone dying on the side of the road and no one even noting their passing. …There are things that are extraordinarily horrific and signs of extraordinary strength, and that's important for people to know.")

If nothing else, I’m well-aware of the irony of writing a piece like this. After all, I’d be hard-pressed to know the details of Haiti’s failing infrastructure if not for the inhuman efforts of the reporters now down there.

But if we journalists really believe in this mission, we have a Hippocratic-like obligation to at least do no harm. So, rather than engage in a logistical arms-race every time a natural disaster strikes, why not adapt a concept we routinely use in other contexts—the pool. For those unfamiliar with the arrangement, a pool is journalism’s longstanding solution to the problem of stories that attract more interest from reporters than there is room to accommodate them. Most famously, the dozens of news organizations that cover the White House document the president’s daily comings and goings this way. At any given moment, there may only be one or two journalists in the room with the leader of the free world, leaving dozens on the outside. But that doesn’t mean they lack information they need to file their own stories. Instead, one of the reporters with a front-row seat writes what’s known as a “pool report,” which everyone else in the syndicate shares. (Something analogous happens for video coverage.)

A “disaster pool” could work the same way. Just like they do for White House coverage, the major (and some not so major) news organizations could draw up an agreement to send a contingent of print, radio, and television reporters to wherever the next global disaster strikes. The participating news organizations could then use the raw material transmitted back to them to fashion their own reports. The pool correspondents could even be available to conduct on-air interviews with different television organizations, depending on their editorial needs. The arrangement would obviously be less than ideal for the outlets with the biggest budgets. But, collectively, the media would have the peace of mind of knowing it's not exacerbating the same problems it's trying to alleviate.

After all, unlike an ongoing civil war in some obscure third-world country, or a famine in an far-off corner of the earth, the one thing there’s no shortage of after a high-profile disaster like Haiti or Katrina is attention. And who knows? If we in the media can swallow our pride and embrace an idea like the disaster pool, it just might leave us with a bit more time and money to devote to those less-covered tragedies. Which, I’m sure Anderson Cooper would agree, are just as important for people to know about.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor of The New Republic

Reporting assistance from Noah Kristula-Green, Byron Tau, and Sam Sweeney

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