The Haiti Earthquake and Journalistic Choices

Yesterday, a tremendous earthquake struck Haiti, one of the poorest nations in the world. I’ve been thinking a lot about this tragedy in the last 24 hours, praying for the victims and survivors, and hoping that the relief effort will be swift, compassionate and comprehensive. As I write this, the extent of death and destruction is not yet clear. But from what I’ve heard from news reports, the Haiti Earthquake of January 2010 appears to be one of the worst natural disasters of this century, possibly even more devastating than the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004.

I’ve also been observing how journalists, and especially broadcast journalists, have been covering this story. I first heard of the news on CNN. Wolf Blitzer broke the story during his “Situation Room” broadcast a few minutes after 5 p.m. My wife was watching CNN when the first announcement was made, and soon both of us were scanning the various news channels for updates. We checked out the Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but we kept coming back to CNN, since, for at least the first few hours after the earthquake, CNN had the most comprehensive and detailed reports.

Indeed, I was a bit shocked by how little attention this story received on Fox News Channel and MSNBC during the first few hours after the earthquake hit. CNN was covering the story nonstop from when the news broke shortly after 5 p.m. Fox had a brief “Fox News Alert” around 5:30 during the Glenn Beck show, but didn’t provide any extensive coverage of the story. MSNBC broke the story a bit later than Fox with an update during “Hardball.” But again, MSNBC, like FNC, didn’t give much more than a brief mention about the tragedy unfolding a few hundred miles southeast of Florida.

CNN did what a news channel should do when a big story like this hits: interrupt regular programming, stick with the story and provide as much information as you can to viewers. Both Fox News Channel and MSNBC instead relied mostly on their pre-recorded talk programs. On Fox News Channel, Bill O’Reilly interviewed Sarah Palin, who recently became a regular contributor to Fox News. The only mention of the Haiti Earthquake I noticed on FNC during the O’Reilly show was in the scrolling ticker at the bottom of the screen. Similarly, I didn’t hear Keith Olbermann mention the tragedy at all during his show on MSNBC. To her credit, Rachel Maddow did spend a significant part of her show covering the Haiti earthquake, but by then CNN had been covering it nonstop for nearly 4 hours.

I’m rather disappointed that the only cable news channel that stayed with this story from the beginning was CNN. I can understand why MSNBC might have a hard time covering breaking news, as they have the most limited news resources among the three major news channels. But one would think Fox News Channel could have broke away from their routine prime-time lineup to cover a story of this magnitude. While FNC might not have quite the same number of reporters in the field as does CNN, I think they could have pulled out the stops if they had wanted to do so. They certainly could afford to do so. Fox News Channel is watched by more people than CNN, and those higher ratings have helped swelled the bank accounts of Rupert Murdoch and the News Corporation, which owns Fox (as well as the Wall Street Journal and many other media properties).

So why didn’t Fox News Channel, the broadcast news flagship of a company called the “News” Corporation, break away from their pre-recorded prime-time lineup of commentary shows to provide breaking news coverage of the earthquake in Haiti? One can only assume this reflects contrasting “gatekeeping” philosophies, about what is newsworthy and what isn’t. Last night on Fox News Channel, Sarah Palin’s debut as an FNC contributor was news. Last night on CNN, the earthquake in Haiti was news. With all due respect to Ms. Palin, I think CNN made the better journalistic choice.

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