Interview with Joanna Smith of the Toronto StarQ: You have reported on deeply moving, emotional, brutal and hopeful moments in Haiti. How does the scene reconcile with the way you prepared yourself in your own mind as you made the trip to the ravaged areas; I suppose I’m asking – until you are there on the ground, can you even image how vast the destruction is?
Joanna Smith: It was nearly impossible for me to prepare mentally for the level of destruction before I got here, just as it remains extremely difficult to accurately convey what I am seeing in words.
The decision to send me here came so quickly. I knew there had been a devastating earthquake, but I had not even really had the chance to see the images on television until I had already agreed to go and I was preparing for the trip.
On the flight down I kept thinking: “This is going to be like Hurricane Katrina.” I didn’t cover that event at all. I read about it in the newspaper, heard it on the radio and watched it on television like most of the world. It was only several days into my assignment that I realized this was far, far worse in many different ways. You get used to a thing.
On the ground, everything is so much more immediate, obviously. I’m here. It is so difficult to describe the stench and even harder to understand how one gets used to it. I’ve stopped wearing my face mask, stopped noticing it on my clothes and stopped stepping around the garbage and just walking through it.
It feels surreal, as cliché a term as that may be when it comes to describing a disaster zone. I often feel detached, or as if I am on the set of a movie or in a wax museum. It is a very strange feeling to realize that you are seeing the things you are seeing and not breaking down into tears or getting sick. It’s a strange sensation to feel fine here, but something I am at the same time grateful for.Q: You have been actively using Twitter to relay messages back home and around the world. You won’t be surprised to find many of us are glued to your status updates. Two questions. First, Does this help ease your families anxiety about you being in a disaster area?
JS: Absolutely. My friends and family tell me they are checking my updates constantly just to make sure that I am safe and sound. My dad has joined Twitter. He sent me an email asking if I could see his “tweets” and put the word in quotation marks like that. It was adorable. He is following just one person and it is me. He was terrified when he heard about the aftershock. I did not respond to his concerned email right away, so he logged onto Twitter and said he exhaled deeply when he saw that I was safe. The father of my colleague, Toronto Star photographer Lucas Oleniuk, has also joined Twitter to follow my updates. The other day he sent Lucas a text message suggesting we go to Canadian Tire because I had tweeted about our truck getting a flat tire after rolling over a shard of glass or anything else that was lying in the street. I managed a short telephone call to my husband the other night when there was a period of good reception and he already knew everything I was up to that day. It’s been a great way to stay in touch.And second , how are you finding getting instant/near-instant feedback from readers?
JS: I am actually unable to see the @ replies very often. When I have seen them, my reactions have been mixed.
First, It was surprising to see how many people were interested in my work. I joined Twitter about seven or eight months ago and have already found it an incredible reporting tool, but have not seen the kind of response I have seen in Haiti. Covering H1N1 and live-tweeting parliamentary committees is a different thing, obviously. I began tweeting from Miami and Santo Domingo to keep myself busy, honestly. Then I had no email reception after we crossed the border into Haiti and so, out of necessity, filed an entire story via Twitter and just kept it up throughout the first day. I had absolutely no idea the level of response I was getting back home until friends started emailing me about it. Now I guess it has become my thing while I am here and I am happy to contribute to covering this story in that way. The 140-character limit brings an immediacy to the reporting. It forces you to forego flowery adjectives in favour of simple language: verbs and nouns. I find that style of writing is leaking into the stories I file to the newspaper as well and I see that as an improvement in my writing. I can tell that readers are responding well to that and it is nice to hear from them.
Second, it can be frustrating when followers mistake me for a relief worker, take tweets out of context or expect far more from me than I can possibly provide. I find that whenever I tweet the name of a location, followers ask me to help search for people at a nearby location. I can do no such thing. I am just a journalist writing about what I see. I know there has also been a large number of people asking me and other media to spend more time at the Hotel Montana and asking for more details about what I have seen there. People need to understand there is little I can do to help. Rescue teams are there full-time. Embassies are in charge of identifying bodies and contacting their families. I cannot do that. I am not a search-and-rescue team and I do not have the level of access to databases and other clues that embassies have to be able to identify someone. I could be wrong and really hurt a family needlessly. For example, I found a suitcase with business cards from a U.S. doctor. I refrained from tweeting the name. I found out days later she had already been rescued. I understand how frustrating a lack of information can be, but I cannot be an authoritative source of information when it comes to things like finding missing loved ones.Q: There have been ongoing debates – albeit quiet – about the number of journalists in Haiti from Western nations and then the semantics/connotations around the words looting, scavenging and collecting food for the hungry. Will you weigh in on these briefly from your perspective?
JS: The first part of your question is a debate that I have not witnessed here in Haiti, although that is not to say it is not happening. Every Haitian I have spoken to has been glad the media is here to tell the story. They wish I was an aid worker who could bring them a bottle of water of course, but failing that they are gracious about my role as someone who is here to tell their story and hold the Canadian government and the international community to account. I am sure Haitians in Port-au-Prince would rather we were here than not here and their opinions are the only ones I really care about right now. The world can talk again about this point once the media, including myself, begin pulling out of Haiti.
As for looting vs. scavenging, this is a debate I have addressed, albeit briefly, with readers via Twitter. There is something about being on the ground here that makes all debates like that seem academic and a little ridiculous. I do not mean to be condescending. I have participated in such debates many times throughout my own life and I no doubt will continue to do so. Just consider this: the Haitians have not had such debates. They call it “pillage” and they still manage to see the nuance in the word. Just because it is looting does not mean it is wrong in these circumstances. At the same time, what about the person who runs up to the person who just “looted” or “scavenged” from an abandoned storefront and takes whatever they “looted” or “scavenged” away with the threat of violence, or actual violence? Is that “looting” or “scavenging” or “stealing”? Is that person any more or less desperate than the person who took it from the abandoned storefront? Are they more or less justified in their actions? Context is everything. Unfortunately, the 140-character limit on Twitter does not allow for much of it, so I have warned readers that I will likely use “looting” in that forum, whereas I will think more carefully about it for the newspaper version. I might have called the 15-year-old girl who was shot dead by police a looter at one point, but the harsher criticism should undoubtedly be reserved for the one, or the system behind that one, who fired the gun.Here is an embed of Joanna Smith’s most recent tweets. And, take a moment to donate to the Humanitarian Coalition or the Red Cross – they are going a great job on the ground. Photo credits United National Development Agency; who have placed their images under Creative Commons. Bravo!