Tragedy – and tourism?

Yes – I know I promised Burj Khalifah, and yet here’s another Haiti post. Since classes started again last Tuesday, I’ve been busy (or, as Steven would say, busier) again. Yet I’m painfully aware that here I must come across as someone who’s been glued to CNN, unable to function in because of events happening thousands of miles away. I see that in print, I wonder why I’d feel uncomfortable for allowing my life to be disrupted over something serious, yet the embarrassment is as palpable as the guilt for not “staying on task” and coming up with the goods I’ve promised. But, when if there’s a too late to switch back to covering Dubai, is there also a too soon? When is the best time to switch from “the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” to “Las Vegas on Steroids?”

The weird reality is that all these links from the last three entries have surfaced through homework – I am on task, or at least no more off task than normal. Following disasters and disaster coverage are both now – a part of my job? Ok. But I’m not a journalist in the field – and there’s plenty of debate there, too.

Then I stumbled across “Good Intentions Are Not Enough: An honest conversation about the impact of aid“, and found a wealth of material, both collected and written by Saundra Schimmelpfennig addressing another kind of disaster involvement (and the impact on coordination after a disaster) : travelers. Sometimes they are volunteers, sometimes tourists like those on the 3,100-passenger Navigator of the Seas, sometimes a hybrid of both.

Schimmelpfennig introduces the (new to me) concept of Disaster Tourism and describes it’s (mostly negative) impact on natural disaster survivors and aid efforts. Disaster tourism. I’d heard of “dark tourism” – defined by a travel seminar class in my undergrad career as “death tourism – and the concept made me deeply uncomfortable. There’s also the “more grey” – if there is such a thing – travel dubbed “development tourism.”

Explaining that well-intended attempts to help after a disaster may make a confusing situation worse, the Schimmelpfennig starts a list of four articles with Guideline #1 for Volunteering Overseas and follows up the series with “What to look for when evaluating an aid agency.”

Going a step further, I’ve explored the idea of travel being more than just getting on a plane – it can rise from a book, flow through a television, or over the radio. Can disaster tourism be virtual too – does that help explain my fears and chagrin at potentially being perceived as frozen in my living room?

CNN and Anderson Cooper have already been the whipping boy for frustrations over media coverage, while editors at The Washington Post and New York Times have weighed in to explain their publications’ respective stances.

It’s a concern that shifts uneasily when I come across links like this one to CNN’s new interactive video feature shot January 17. Before I play with it and forward it to my ethics instructor, I can’t help notice that the technology is a) cool and b) celebrating it too much would feel a little macabre given the nature of the footage. By the way, they may not be there much longer.

Well, no one ever told me this wouldn’t be messy – there’s no one to blame but myself.

On the other hand, Conan O’Brien’s directive against cynicism transcends its network battle context.

The coordinated disaster and medical professionals going in are truly priceless. As my friend Tina will discover Feb 8 through her hospital’s programs, there will be seriously tough times ahead. I worry and at the same time, remember her as the awesome babysitter she was to me before becoming an amazing doctor and Alea’s mother, and I believe she can make small but important differences. Sites like Biosurveillance: Operational issues in the practice of biosurveillance has set up a dedicated website for Haiti to address the demand for information and the information coming in for people like Tina and everyone they hope to help.

In the meantime, I have a very different kind of work to do – including covering both Haiti AND the Burj Khalifah – before catching, hopefully, a few hours of badly needed sleep.

Finally, to steal from Dispatches one more time, people don’t remember loved ones as CNN portrays them – this is how people will be remembered.

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