Monday, January 18, 2010

The Story Behind NPR's Haiti Coverage

In the wake of disasters, news organizations must instantly shift staff, equipment, and resources to cover the event. In the wake of the devastating earthquake in Haiti last week, NPR News Director of Operations Charlie Mayer fills in on the behind-the-scenes factors at play in NPR's coverage.

Q: Given the huge difficulties of air travel into and out of Haiti, how is NPR getting reporters on the ground to do their work?

This is thanks entirely to the resourcefulness, leadership, and dedication of National Desk Assistant Producer Gisele Grayson and Morning Edition Senior Editor Maeve McGoran who have wrestled us on to all manner of charter flights out of Miami. The best story (and I don't know the details) is Morning Edition Senior Producer Tom Bullock. He arrived in Port au Prince on a King Air plane owned by Ted Turner. No kidding.

Q: With electricity down, how are reporters powering their equipment?

NPR correspondent Carrie Kahn charged her Iridium satellite phone at a medical tent on Wednesday night. NPR is now set up at a hotel where there is power.

Q: Are they using sat phones to file stories? Some of them sound a little garbled - is that the satellite interference?

The garbled sound comes from a handheld satellite phone called an Iridium. When Carrie Kahn departed Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday, this was the only satellite phone she could take. There was no room for producer Amy Walters or the larger Nera sat phone that we are used to hearing.

Now that everyone has arrived, we have six sat phones on the ground: Two Hughes 9201, one Explorer 110 and three Neras (including Neras 1 and 4, which are both 8.5 years old). We will now use those sat phones to file stories, so the garbled Iridium sound will become less present on the air. Some of these sat phones can be used to access the Internet, as well.

We have four Iridium handheld sat phones, which are useful because the local mobile network is not totally working. Our Verizon international Blackberries are not working at all.

Q: With such a wide-scale disaster, how do NPR staff on the ground in Haiti taking care of their basic needs for shelter, food, and water?
This is the primary responsibility of producer Tom Bullock. He filled up a Pelican case (a water-tight hardcase we use to transport equipment) with camping and survival gear that we keep on hand for this kind of operation. Huge credit on this goes to Logistics Manager Bill Craven. We've got a mini REI and CVS that Bill has kept stocked for years. This is all Bill. This time last year, that stash kept us going through the frigid Obama inauguration. Yesterday we cleared the shelves in support of the Haiti operation.

Here’s what we sent from Bill's depot:

2 or 3 sleeping mats
Bungee cords
Two first-aid kits
2 rolls duct tape
1 boss light
8 packs matches
1 headlamp
Cable & safety pins
2 packets wipes
1 box non-lubricated Trojan condoms (These are standard field equipment – they go over the microphones if it rains.)
2 energizer LED lights
2 inverters
2 tarps
2 sunscreens
2 afterbite
1 baggie full of mosquito spray wipes
2 large raincoats
1 sleeping shell
2 water purification pumps
1 laptop

This was supplemented by the following supplies Maeve bought in Miami, and stowed in one large duffle bag, which she bought at Target. Everything below fit in it, except for 4 dozen of the water bottles which were carried separately by Tom on Ted Turner’s King Air.

5 dozen 12 oz. bottles of water
2 gallon jugs of water
Trail mix in many flavors
Beef jerky (flavors including Teriyaki and Kansas City BBQ)
Dried Fruit (including raisins, apricots, cherries, blue berries, and cranberries)
Tuna in a Pouch
Cooked Chicken in a Pouch
Crank Flashlights
A huge bottle of Purell
Smaller bottles of Purell
Heavy duty leather work gloves
Small cans of fruit including mandarin oranges and peaches
Power Bars (many dozens in many flavors)
Granola Bars

Deputy Director of Operations Sharahn Thomas, NPR's Operations Desk, and NPR's Information Services division have scrambled to activate and deploy mobile devices and extra reporting gear.

Q: What kind of transportation do NPR staff members have in Haiti? How did you get it for them -- or did they get it themselves?
They have hired a car and driver. They are also walking. Fuel is in short supply.

Q: How will you get them out, with flights restricted?
Flights are restricted. But our charter wranglers are somehow getting our people on the flights that are going. We have considered chartering our own plane, but have not had to do that.

Q: On the Information Services side, what happens if they have computer issues? Do they carry backups?
We haven't heard of a single computer problem. Why? Because we put our people in the field with hardware that works. The best kind of support is preparation. Huge credit on this goes to Information Services Manager Oumar Sall, the Information Services Help Desk, and Bob Duncan. We did send a spare laptop with Bullock. If anybody were to have trouble, Bullock would be the first line of defense. If that doesn't work, then the IS staff hotline and Bob Duncan are standing by to help. Bob was been working with our sat phone provider this morning to fix one issue with Jason Beaubien's sat phone, and reports it's now back in action.

Q: Do Blackberries work on the island? How are the reporters keeping in touch?
Not at this point. The mobile network seems to be coming back to life, but our Verizon gear is not working. This is because the Haitian provider that handles Verizon traffic was hit hard and their network is saturated. We're hopeful that this will improve. Oumar is working with Verizon. In the meantime, handheld Iridium phones are being used as we would normally use our BlackBerries.

Q: What other behind-the-scenes work is underway?
Nothing happens without money and NPR Finance has done an amazing job with the cash. This started before the banks opened on Wednesday. NPR Accounting Manager Susie Julbe and her team expedited wire transfers for Amy and Carrie early Wednesday and have since moved wire transfers for numerous other people. It is a cash economy at this point, so the availability and security of our cash is a top priority. Fortunately, Tom Bullock is an expert at this after years in Baghdad, Kabul, and other garden spots.

Some of our first responders on this were our engineers Melissa Marquis and Michael Cullen. They scrambled in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake to get Newscast set up with Skype.

Social Media and Haiti Coverage
NPR's Senior Strategist for Social Media Andy Carvin shares insights into how NPR is using Twitter and other social media tools in our Haiti coverage in this MediaBistro article. His work was also featured on DCFox5 TV news. (See 2:23 into the video.)

How Can I Help?
Below is a list of links VPR has mentioned in our own coverage of the Haiti earthquake and relief efforts.

Rep. Peter Welch

Senator Bernie Sanders

City of Burlington

American Red Cross Vermont

National American Red Cross


  1. VPR AND NPR,should focus on unbiased reporting of the Haitian disaster, all to often it is easier to push a logistical blame game of not enough, too late and unorganized help.there is all too often a little too much criticism of USA attemps to help . As with the Katrina disaster, let the rest of the worlds media condemn the USA. Not our own.....

  2. I appreciate the work all these folks are doing and I am very glad its not me who is there.


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