Katz discusses reporting in Haiti after earthquake

Oliver Ortega and Oliver Ortega

Jonathan Katz had been living and reporting in Haiti for three years when an earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 hit last January, devastating the country. Katz spoke about his experiences to a packed room in the McCormick Tribune Center Forum Thursday night.

Katz (MSJ ‘04) was the only foreign correspondent in Haiti when the earthquake struck. He recalled running out of his shaking house in Port Au Prince and watching as a nearby neighborhood collapsed to the ground.

“Buildings that had been there a minute ago were gone,” Katz said. “Thousands of people were screaming everywhere.

At the presentation, Katz was presented with the 2011 Medill Medal of Courage. He is the first guest speaker of the year for the Crain Lecture Series, a program that invites standout journalists and members of the media to speak and highlights their work and achievements.

The Associated Press writer sent out the first news alert about the quake on a Blackberry he managed to borrow from an American running out of a nearby hotel. He drove around Haiti with an assistant looking for a phone signal in order to communicate what was happening.

The earthquake, said to be the worst in 200 years for Haiti, left between 250,000 and 300,000 dead and around 300,000 in need of medical attention, according to UN officials. The quake also destroyed many buildings, including the seat of government in the capital.

Haiti’s status as one of the most impoverished countries magnifies the damage inflicted by natural disasters, Katz said. Even without earthquakes, he said Haitian buildings can collapse because of poor construction. He told of how a schoolhouse that was built without a permit just behind his house collapsed in 2008 and killed over 100 people.

Katz said that although billions of dollars had apparently been pledged for earthquake relief, the money was “going in circles” and Haiti remained in a precarious position.

“Things look no different from how they looked a month after the earthquake,” Katz said.

Katz stayed in Haiti until February of this year and continued to report on the country’s tumultuous political elections and a cholera epidemic.

Eric Feldman, a sophomore in Medill, said he found Katz to be inspiring. Feldman said he wants to be a foreign correspondent and has attended Crain lectures in the past.

“It’s useful to go to these events and hear journalists who’ve been there and done that share their stories,” Feldman said.

Katz emphasized the importance of immersion and discarding assumptions when reporting in a foreign country.

“I got to know the story of Haiti and learned Creole,” Katz said. “I wasn’t coming in from outside.”

Richard Stolley, a senior editorial adviser at TIME Inc. and a judge for the Medill Medal of Courage, said Katz was the obvious choice to be this year’s recipient.

“There’s usually fierce competition, but his stuff was just superb,” Stolley said. “Under the worst possible conditions – physical, mental, economic, everything – he produced outstanding journalism day after day.”

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