Haiti: The journalists behind the story

January 27, 2010

The story:  When a massive earthquake hit Haiti on January 12, Reuters journalists raced to the devastated capital of Port-au-Prince. While Reuters has no bureau in Haiti, we have established long-time freelancers to help on our coverage and we go on assignment there regularly for major stories. Logistics post-earthquake became a challenge as commercial flights into the city were canceled and some of our journalists made their way into the Dominican Republic’s Santo Domingo airport and then journeyed several hours by car to cross the border into Haiti.

The journalists:  As you’d expect, our journalists reported on the devastation and witnessed the thousands of dead bodies and the suffering of many more. Behind the scenes, reporting conditions were rough as one of our reporter’s flak jacket and helmet for safety were taken by border guards. Communications was spotty even with satellite phones. Our team was split for the first week between the airport and the Hotel Villa Creole. While the hotel was mostly habitable, for aftershock fears that were later realized, most visitors and journalists chose the safer quarters of sleeping in the open near the hotel’s swimming pool.

Some of the in-person accounts from our team who first hit the ground can be found here, here and here.

Covering a major disaster is a great team effort and the team who first rotated in included: Carlos Barria, Catherine Bremer, Tom Brown, Manuel Carrillo, Andy Cawthorne, Oliver Ellrodt, Adam Entous, Alberto Fajardo, Debbie Gembara, Ben Gruber, Laurent Hamida, Gershon Peaks, Wolfgang Rattay, Carlos Rawlins, Jorge Silva, Carlos Valdez, Jean Valmy, Herbert Villarraga and Omar Younis.

News editors on the story included  Pascal Fletcher, Marie Frail, Gary Hershorn, Frances Kerry, Kieran Murray and David Storey.

Freelancers on the ground include:  Ricardo Dias, Jesus Frias, Joseph Guyler Delva, Evan Lambert, Eduardo Munoz, Herlen Santana, Ricardo Silva-Santi-Esteban, and Kena Betancur,

While there were plenty of bylines and other credits to our text stories, pictures, live TV shots and video, there was plenty of maneuvering behind the scenes as well. Saul Hudson and Alistair Bell hosted twice daily operational and logistics calls, Larry Rubenstein hired security to help protect our team and made sure people had food, Mike Berrigan made sure people had working equipment and Molly Skipper helped track our journalist movements. Thanks to Pascal, Mike and others who literally helped pay for our coverage by loaning thousands of dollars and euros to journalists headed into Haiti. Amid a disaster, credit cards are useless and ATMs won’t work.

The following highlights some of our key journalists on the story:

Ben Gruber, Science & Environment Reporter

How we covered the story: We dominated this story for three main reasons. First, we acted very fast. We chartered a flight from Fort Lauderdale and were the first foreign news crew to land in Port-au-Prince post quake.  We set up our operation in record time giving our clients the first live pictures from Haiti.  Second, we approached this story with a new mindset using the latest technology we had available.  We offered our clients every angle of this story (human devastation/ search & rescue/ aid & relief, etc..) live and direct using our BGAN’s (Broadband Global Area Network) – a terminal the size of a laptop that allows you to uplink live images from virtually anywhere. Our  broadcast of a successful rescue in real time set a new standard for live television.  Lastly, we put our clients first. When NBC’s anchor, Brian Williams, was desperate to broadcast live for Nightly News – not once but twice – it was Reuters that made it happen, something they will not forget in near future.

Andrew Cawthorne, Andean region bureau chief

How we covered the story: I flew straight from New York to Santo Domingo on a dawn flight after the earthquake, grabbed a taxi at the airport to reach the border 5 hours later, then, after being stripped of my security jacket and helmet by guards there, persuaded a Haitian businessman to put me in the back of his truck for the rest of the journey. The next 7 days are a blur which I still cannot reconstruct with any sort of logical timeframe — I just remember sleeping (or trying to sleep) on the floor, and whizzing around by motorbike to discover ever-more horrific scenes, from corpses on the street, to horribly wounded people lying untreated, to mass graves, and gun-toting crowds of looters. The Reuters team was amazing, we really looked after each other round-the-clock. The pix guys were so much more practical and helpful than we text-ers. Interesting, no?

Carlos Barria, Senior staff photographer

How we covered the story: I was already charging my satellite phone when my boss Gary Hershorn called. My cat always curls up inside my backpack when I’m getting ready for a trip and that’s what she did again as I laid out the equipment. I took a private plane into Haiti and arrived in Port-au-Prince at 11 a.m. the day after the earthquake. I travelled light, knowing I would work as soon as I stepped from the airport. I found a motorcycle taxi and made my way to the Presidential Palace. In less than 500 meters I began to see dead bodies in the streets. I passed hundreds before I arrived at the Palace to take a picture of the building’s crumbled dome. This was one of the hardest assignments I’ve ever been on in my 10 years with Reuters. I eventually understood that my job was not just to take pictures. It was 50 percent photography and 50 percent logistics: Where are we going to sleep? Do we have electricity? Can we communicate? Do we have gasoline for the motor-taxis tomorrow? Do we have enough cash? I am grateful to my friends Eduardo Munoz, Kena Betancur, Jorge Silva, Carlos Garcia Rawlling and others who worked together on this coverage.

Joseph Guyler Delva, Stringer for Reuters since 2004

How we covered the story: “Guy” is one of Haiti’s most prominent journalists who heads the local SOS Journalist organization that works to promote press freedom in the Caribbean nation. He has been working for Reuters since 2004, covering everything from political turmoil to natural disasters like floods, landslides and deadly building collapses. He has faced intimidation and deaths threats in the course of his reporting. His first dispatch on Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake was one of the first detailed eyewitness accounts to the outside world reporting on the panic and scale of destruction in the streets of Port-au-Prince. His own home and office collapsed in the quake but his wife, Shirley, and children, Jennifer, 7 and Stephan, 1, survived.

As Guy recounts it, in the immediate aftermath of the quake, after he ascertained his wife and children were safe: “I took off running for home, dodging piles of rubble and collapsed cars along the mile-long (1.5-km) route, and tearfully embraced Shirley and the children when I got the last call I received that day, just before mobile phone service and Haiti’s communications with the outside world collapsed. The call was from Pascal Fletcher, the Miami-based Reuters bureau chief for the Caribbean and U.S. Southeast. I fed him him all the color and information I could, promising to call back just a short while later. But further communication was impossible until the following day, when I found a working Internet line to email the Miami bureau. As a journalist, I have been torn between covering the dramatic story here and looking out for my family. With our home in ruins, we had to camp out on the streets and on the floor of a friend’s restaurant in the immediate aftermath of the quake. But I also need to report what is happening in my suffering and deeply impoverished homeland. It is a difficult balancing act, and I answered Shirley’s repeated protests by explaining that doing my job was also a way of supporting my family.”

Pascal Fletcher, Southeastern U.S. bureau chief

How we covered the story: After our Washington team issued news of the earthquake, our biggest challenge was getting a call through to Port-au-Prince because the phone network had collapsed. I dialed repeatedly to get through to our stringer Guy Delva and other contacts, knowing those first graphic details from the ground after a quake are vital. The only information available was a terse U.S. Geological Survey report on what looked like a dangerous and potentially destructive quake. Miraculously, after an hour one of my calls was picked up by Guy. He stood in the middle of the quake devastation and gave detailed testimony — setting up a dramatic snap and urgent describing collapsed buildings, people screaming in the streets and dead and injured in the rubble. That’s probably one of the most dramatic snaps that I’ve sent in my career with Reuters. Later that evening, I was fortunate to reach by phone a charity worker in Port-au-Prince who spoke of many major collapsed buildings and survivors sitting injured and dazed in the dark. He predicted hundreds, probably thousands of dead. These testimonies allowed us to get a strong, detailed report to the world at a time when information from Port-au-Prince was still very sketchy. After quick coordination by our TV, Pix and text teams to get staffers into the wrecked city, the last two weeks have been a testing, but very satisfying, period of writing daily trunks, issuing news alerts and newsbreaks and helping to craft distinctive and eye-catching sidebars from very strong, original material sent up by our incredibly productive reporters on the ground. I feel privileged to have been able to participate in this team coverage of a major news event, in the best tradition of Reuters, involving many in different parts of the company.

Catherine Bremer, Senior Correspondent, Mexico & Central America

How we covered the story: Getting this story out was journalism in its purest form: motorbiking around the destroyed city each day from dawn until dusk gathering information and colour and calling it in by satphone to Miami. The other key part was logistics. It was easier at first to communicate with Miami than each other, so Miami was our hub, and invaluable in putting together our trunks and overnighters, until we later had access to text messages and then email. Strong reporting skills are key but you also need to be super-organized, able to pack very fast (most of us keep emergency supplies like cash, batteries, notepads, hand sanitiser, dried cranberries, face masks, first aid kit etc at home) and lightly, sacrificing clothes/toiletries to make room for satphone, car chargers etc. On the ground, take every chance to keep laptop and phones fully charged. Keep granola bars, Gatorade, sun cream, hand sanitiser etc with you at all times in case you get cut off from your base. You also have to look after your safety, which for us included strong-soled boots for walking on nasty debris, checking your exits in streets packed with looters and making sure to sleep outside and away from walls.

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