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Around the World, Across the Political Spectrum

Haitians’ Response to U.S. Media Coverage of Haiti

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Abstract:

Drawing on a literature review and the ethnographic data collected in Miami’s Haitian community in the summer of 2019, this paper examines American media bias against Haiti, how Haitians respond to such bias, and the differences between how Haitians perceive themselves and how they believe Americans perceive them. My research participants expressed a multitude of beliefs concerning Haitian identity, many of which were rooted in a deep historical self-consciousness as well as an awareness of new struggles that Haitians and Haitian-Americans face today. Ultimately, I argue that the persistence of colonial attitudes and paternalism towards Haitians in US journalism—as well as the continued circulation of centuries-old stereotypes—are contributing to a chasm between Haitians and non-Haitians in the United States today on matters of cultural identity.

Journalism and news reporting have powerful and far-reaching effects on bilateral relations between nations. The paternalistic attitudes that the U.S. has exhibited towards Haiti over the last 150 years were informed by biased, inaccurate, and sensationalist media coverage, trends we continue to see in coverage of events as devastating as the 2010 earthquake and as recently as the 2019 civil unrest in Haiti. Parachute journalism, a term which refers to the practice of dropping reporters into unfamiliar territory to briefly cover an event before returning home, is frequently problematic in foreign media coverage—journalists who do not know the history of the place or people they are covering well are more susceptible to perpetuating stereotypes and providing an incomplete picture (Martin, 2011). Media bias can negatively impact relationships between nations and can keep alive hackneyed ideas, as certainly is the case with the U.S. and Haiti.

In the summer of 2019, in the midst of an anti-government uprising in Haiti, I conducted ethnographic research in Little Haiti, Miami, Florida to explore how Haitians believe Americans perceive and represent them. With the invaluable help of my Haitian research partner, Elisson Adrien, I conducted interviews with Haitians and Haitian-Americans concerning media bias, cultural stereotypes, and life as immigrants in the United States. The time I spent in Little Haiti signaled to me that bias in American media coverage of Haiti and the Haitian people is contributing to two issues: (1) significant misunderstanding between the two nations and the people of these nations, and (2) the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and biases rooted in falsehood and, potentially, racism. 

I.A History of Biased Representation

Since Haiti won its independence from France in 1804, the country has been misrepresented and treated with condescension in American media (Dubois, 2013). Haiti has been portrayed in many different negative ways—from evil to savage to helpless—yet these portrayals have little to no basis in truth. Poor U.S. media representation of Haiti continues today and can be easily recognized in America’s coverage of Haiti’s disastrous 2010 earthquake and in reporting about unrest in 2019. American journalism, for example, perpetuates the centuries-old narrative that Haiti is weak, inferior, and pitiable. In order to improve relations between Haiti and the United States, scholars suggest that American journalists deepen their own awareness of Haiti’s history and present struggles, and spread such awareness to the American public through accurate and even empathetic reporting.

Assessing Past United States Media Coverage of Haiti

To contextualize more recent media portrayals of Haiti in the United States, it is essential to understand the history and relationship between the two countries. Haiti became the first and only successful colony to successfully unchain itself from slavery and earn its independence from the French in 1804. After a century of internal political turmoil, provoked at different times by the United States and European powers, Haiti was occupied by the United States for 19 years beginning in 1914. During this time, the media described Haiti as a country plagued by political instability, violence, chaos, and immorality, among other problems (Potter, 2009). Scholars assert that one newspaper in particular, The New York Times, “displayed condescension, paternalism, and racism in its editorials toward the inhabitants of the ‘black republic’” throughout the period of occupation (Bergman, 2011, p. 38). This type of media portrayal was common during the U.S. occupation, and, more broadly, the United States has regarded Haiti with an air of superiority and an attitude of pity since the country gained independence. In the decades after the occupation, American journalists continued to “blame the problems of Haiti on the ‘races,’ languages, religions, and cultures of Haitians” instead of reporting objectively (Daut, 2015, p. 610).  Simply put, American journalists have historically viewed Haiti as a “failed state unable to properly govern itself,” which has become a “common frame that can be found on the pages of U.S. newspapers” (Potter, 2009, p. 209).

Hollywood bears significant responsibility for creating stereotypes of Haiti and circulating these misconceptions among the American people. Films like “White Zombie” (1933) portray Haiti as an uncivilized society consumed by evil and black magic, especially with regard to the spiritual tradition of Vodou (Halperin, 1933). Popularization of Vodou dolls and the association of Vodou with sorcery can be largely attributed to Hollywood and American popular culture, as “books, films, and travelogues have helped perpetuate stereotypes” (Potter, 2009, p. 211). These damaging misconceptions have seeped into American society’s general view of Haitians, straining the relationship between the two groups. Despite the close relationship between Haiti and the United States over the past 300 years—one characterized as “intricately connected through geography, the Haitian diaspora, and the global economy”—the United States media, “whether consciously or not, have a tendency to portray Haiti as completely isolated from the rest of the world” (Potter, 2009, p. 211). This tendency produces American coverage of Haiti that denigrates the country and continuously paints the Haitian people as inferior, with continuing media stereotypes reflecting and stemming from colonial discourse (Bellegarde-Smith, 2011).

Exhibiting Recent Media Coverage of Haiti: The 2010 Earthquake and 2019 Protests

American coverage of the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in January of 2010 proved to be a further opportunity for this pattern of media bias and serves as a case study for recent U.S. media coverage of Haiti. The 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing over a million (“Haiti Earthquake Fast Facts,” 2018). The disaster was perceived by people across the globe as “an unfortunate, even ‘unfair’ natural calamity on a people already suffering the million affronts of acute poverty and underdevelopment” (“Haiti’s Lesson,” 2010, p. 5). Haitians were traumatized by the immense loss of life and the degree of environmental destruction. Yet the American media by and large did not tell this story—they continued to stereotype and denigrate the country of Haiti and its people.

Without wasting any time, cable news networks, newspapers, bloggers, and other Internet media sources began delivering speculation and misinformation about the situation in Haiti rather than facts—with most of the information “ahistorical” and bordering on “gross racial caricature” (Lundy, 2011, p. 128). American media weaved undertones of Haitian inferiority into their reports, perpetuating old stereotypes during a time of disaster and grief. The journalists reporting on the disaster were largely uneducated about Haiti’s history and offered little empathy to the people dealing first-hand with such a tragedy (Ulysse, 2010). Overall, Haiti's troubled and dysfunctional past made the country an object of pity to the world, and the earthquake only fueled that narrative (Balaji, 2011).

Today’s American media coverage of Haitian news has not improved much over the past ten years. As Haiti responded to protests over political corruption and skyrocketing fuel prices for the better part of 2019, many American stories focused on looting, physical damage, and violence instead of the hardship being experienced by Haitians. Most articles about the unrest mentioned, in some way, Haiti’s state of poverty—usually via some characterization of Haiti as “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” News articles and reports contained language with notes of denigration, describing the country as in a state of “systematic crisis” or plagued by “crippling corruption” (Krygier, 2019). Coverage in 2019 proved that attitudes of paternalism still run rampant in American coverage of Haiti—if Americans even take note of what is happening in Haiti. To this point, in October of 2019, A New York Times article reported that “the Trump administration has urged respect for the democratic process, but has said little about the unrest in Haiti” (Semple, 2019).

The Media’s Role in Improving Relations Between the United States and Haiti

While the fact that Haiti has had a “tangled and, at times, traumatic relationship” with the U.S. is irrefutable, according to Dash, a leading scholar of Caribbean literature, “the potential exists for a more enlightened relationship between Haitians and the U.S. based on reciprocity and intercultural dialogue” (Dash, 2014, p. x). American media can play a central role by spreading awareness concerning the history of Haiti and its ongoing relationship to their struggle today. In reality, however, “the U.S. media… fails to adequately acknowledge the full extent of its present problems or place them in their properly complex geohistorical context, thus inhibiting an understanding that will offer real solutions to its problems” (Potter, 2009, pp. 226-227). As a direct result, foreign aid, which should be used to halt cycles of tyranny and poverty—especially after natural disasters—seems to be predicated on colonial ideas or extends paternalistic agendas (“Haiti’s Lesson,” 2010).

One solution to patronizing, stereotyping, and often inaccurate American media coverage of Haiti is to better educate society on who Haitians are, what they have endured, and what they are still challenged by today. Instead of marginalizing Haiti—a common framework for covering disaster in developing countries—the American media should seek to spread awareness and organize relief solutions (Brown, 2012). The answer to Haiti’s problems is not American pity—feeling sorry for Haitians only serves to distance Americans from them further—nor is it reliance on clichés and stereotypes: “The day when Haitians as a people and Haiti as a symbol are no longer representatives of or synonymous with poverty, backwardness, and evil is still yet to come” (Ulysse, 2010, p. 37). It seems as though the answer may be a blend of knowledge, particularly in journalists, empathy from the American people, and aid from both governments that aims to uplift. 

II.Results and Analysis

The thirteen long-form interviews I conducted in Miami revealed a series of themes that underscore the role of poor media coverage: Haitians were united by a sense of cultural pride, a deep understanding of their country’s history, and a strong work ethic. Haitians reported, however, that their own self-image is not in line with American perceptions. These findings led me to the conclusion that there is a gap in mutual understanding between Haitians and Americans, largely perpetuated by the biased American media coverage of Haiti.

I regularly asked research participants to discuss Haitian identity and culture with me. My time in Miami was shaped by a political culture of fear—I was refused dozens of interviews because I was an unknown outsider to the Haitian community and, because the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) raids were occurring in Florida during the time of my research, some even suspected I was an ICE agent. These discussions opened my eyes to both the discrepancies between how Haitians view themselves and how Haitians believe Americans perceive them and the vast historical consciousness Haitians maintain.

 The most significant theme in their responses was unanimity among Haitian emigres in their deep pride in their cultural heritage. Each participant expressed affection and respect for the Haitian people—their people—with one participant emphasizing, “I have never been one day ashamed or embarrassed of who I am” (Personal Interview, 6/26/19). The qualities and values Haitians used to describe and characterize themselves and the examples they offered to illustrate what Haitian identity means to them can effectively be grouped into two categories: 1) Discussions of perseverance through a tumultuous, and 2) painful history and references to hard work in today’s American society.

Participants displayed an astounding degree of historical consciousness in our conversations. Several Haitians referenced Haiti’s history as a slave colony, the oppressive rule of François Duvalier (Haiti’s violent totalitarian president from 1957-1971), and their lasting reputation as “botpipel” (boat people), a derogatory term used to refer to Haitians who came to America by ship beginning in the late 1970s. These periods of hardship and Haitian perceptions of their own cultural uniqueness instill a sense of dignity and contribute to the formation of a Haitian identity predicated on honor. One participant, a second-generation, female Haitian-American, captured these ideas in this way: “Being Haitian has always been about being uniquely different and having a lot of pride in terms of—not necessarily your blackness, but the liberation process—conversations about liberation, about freedom, about being bold, and unapologetic, is definitely what it means to me to be Haitian” (Personal Interview, 6/19/19). Expressions of Haitian dignity were linked to what their ancestors have overcome and the trying historical events their people have endured. The Haitian people carry on a legacy of devotion to freedom, fellowship, and resilience that is apparent in their perception of their cultural identity today.

Secondly, participants also identified hard work as a cornerstone of Haitian identity. Again and again, participants referred to the challenges of immigration and living as foreigners in American society, even as they juxtaposed these difficulties with their ability to overcome them. One participant put it succinctly: “Haitians are courageous people. We know what we want and we work hard to make it happen” (Personal Interview, 6/27/19). Another participant discussed a conversation she had with another Haitian in Miami concerning his job and his relationship with his American boss. He explained, “I would tell [my boss] that just because he sees me work very hard and very well in spite of the fact that I’m not paid well and I’m treated badly, I’m not stupid. It’s not because I’m stupid that I’m working so hard for you. It’s because as a Haitian man, the quality of my work still speaks for me. Because I don’t have an education, I don’t have degrees, the quality of my work continues to define who I am” (Personal Interview, 7/4/19).

Despite their favorable perception of themselves, Haitians are aware that others—outsiders to their communities and to their nationality—see them differently, and this misjudgment is likely related to biased media coverage. Participants noted that Americans generally lack credible information concerning Haiti’s history and instead base their judgments in stereotypes. One participant disclosed, “I do express [my Haitian identity], but I am very cautious about whom I might offend because of the bad connotations on Haitians, the way they see Haitians, the way they see my culture. ‘Cause once somebody say ‘Haitians,’ the first word comes in their mind is ‘Vodou’” (Personal Interview, 6/14/19). This theme directly aligns with American media and popular culture portrayals of Vodou practitioners as barbaric and uncivilized. Despite the fact that not all Haitians practice Vodou, many feel denigrated for being associated with a tradition that is so stigmatized by Americans.

Further, participants expressed an awareness of persistent colonial and paternalistic attitudes in American media, as if Haiti is a place that needs saving. These comments support Potter’s claim that the framing of Haiti as a failed state can certainly be found in U.S. newspapers (Potter, 2009).

Additionally, one participant noted that she feels as though non-Haitian Americans view them as “less than human,” perhaps because of societal and racial differences (Personal Interview, 6/14/19). Another participant suggested that “We look at Haiti through the lens of American exceptionalism and we expect for Haiti to have the same development standards as first-world countries,” a comment which lends further support to the view that Americans are generally ignorant of Haitian affairs and society (Personal Interview, 6/19/19). This ignorance can surface in reporting, especially in parachute journalism, and lead to the circulation of misinformation, stereotypes, and biased stories. The same participant also claimed that, “The only reason why Vodou is perceived as something negative is because it’s practiced by brown and black people,” pointing to the idea that perhaps the American bias against Haitians may also be racial (Personal Interview, 6/19/19). Further, some scholars, like Balaji, note that the media in white nations often cultivate a narrative in which black nations need saving by the white (2011).

Participants desired that non-Haitian Americans gain a greater understanding of Haitian culture and history, advocating for more education about Haiti in U.S. schools, better media representation, and for Americans to actually visit their country. One participant, a middle-aged man who works multiple jobs to support his wife and three children, expressed disappointment, saying, “the American people, they have a lot to know about Haitian people. When they see Haitian people here, they think we are ‘botpipel,’ poor people, black people. It’s not true. It’s not true. We have a heart. They have to know more about Haitian people” (Personal Interview, 6/29/19).

III.Conclusion

Poor media representation of Haiti—including but not limited to the country’s government, people, and religious practices—is contributing significantly to the stereotypes about Haitians that Americans have internalized and to the gap in understanding between the two countries. This study demonstrates that ignorance is the root of the Haiti-United States disconnect. Though Haitians and Haitian-Americans are disappointed with the American media’s coverage of their culture, they persist in seeking understanding, open-mindedness, and less arrogance in American attitudes towards Haitians. In order to lessen the spread of misinformation about Haiti and the Haitian people in American media, it is essential that journalists prioritize fact and objectivity in their reporting and that the American people avoid judgement, generalizations, and ignorance, thus relieving tensions between the two nations.

Katie Hooker is a graduating senior at Elon University majoring in Strategic Communications and minoring in Interreligious Studies. She has been a part of Elon’s Multifaith Scholars program for the past two years and has enjoyed combining her interest in religion with her passion for communications. She is excited to move back home to Boston and hopes to pursue a career in public relations post-graduation. 

Acknowledgements:

I would like to express my gratitude to my research partner, Elisson Adrien. I would also like to thank Drs. Amy Allocco and Dr. Brian Pennington, for their endless support, wisdom, and kindness and Dr. Byung Lee for his guidance on the first draft of this article and anonymous reviewers who provided feedback. 

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