NY Times and Haitian Times staff
NY Times writers and editors of the recent series "Ransom" joined Haitian Times' executive editor and publisher for a conversation on the process of writing the complex and revelatory work. Credit: Photo by The Haitian Times

In the wake of a 30,000-word special story about Haiti’s “double debt” that brought millions of digital readers to its site, The New York Times is exploring how to describe Haiti moving forward in its coverage. The story’s lead editor told The Haitian Times during a virtual panel that the “poorest country in the Western Hemisphere” description line often used for Haiti should be scrapped as part of a rethinking of how the nation is portrayed. 

“This is something that really rankles most Haitian-Americans or Haitian diaspora or people in Haiti as well,” said Gregory Winter, the international managing editor at the New York Times. “The shorthand journalistically is ‘Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.’”

“What is that new second line,” Winter said. “Can we change the narrative? That, I think, is the big question of what’s next, and how people, journalists included, rethink Haiti as a result of this [series].”

More than 4 million digital readers have accessed the recent five-part New York Times series titled “The Ransom.” Its writers and editors described the response to the five-part piece as “impactful,” “heartwarming,” “significant.” They appeared on The Haitian Times June 20 Community Conversation series to discuss the genesis of the project and its impact.

Can we change the narrative? That, I think, is the big question of what’s next.

Greg Winter, international managing editor, The New York Times

“To be perfectly honest, it was way beyond my expectations,” said Greg Winter, international managing editor of The New York Times, about the response.

Macollvie J. Neel, The Haitian Times executive editor, interviewed Winter, three of the writers and the translator about developing the year-long project, their process and key findings on their journey. The NYT series is the first to detail in a comprehensive, compiled format the financial debt Haiti was forced to pay France, its former enslaver, for the new nation’s independence and the long-term repercussions those payments spawned.

General response to the complete article was overwhelmingly positive for dispersing some age-old questions about Haiti’s destitution, albeit with some critiques.

Catherine Porter, the New York Times’ Toronto bureau chief and lead writer on the piece, who clarified Haiti’s double debt to France, added that she interviewed an historian for the piece who thought about the ransom every day, despite it not being part of his study area. 

“I think about it,” Porter quoted the historian, “because it makes me so angry that France gets to be the country of liberté, égalité, fraternité and Haiti is a country of poverty, of corruption, of destitution. When it came to Haiti, France did not show any of those ideals.”

Porter was referring to the French Revolution rally cry “liberty, equality, fraternity,” which Haiti also adapted as a national slogan.

“Haiti should be known as the first free Black country of the Americas that overthrew slavery, seven decades before it happened in the United States,” Porter said.

Keeping the conversation going

Other New York Times participants on the Zoom video conference were reporters Selam Gebrekidan, based in London and Constant Méheut, based in France, as well as Fedo Boyer, manager of CreoleTrans, which translated the series into French and Haitian Creole.

In addition to developing a new description, The New York Times team also plans to explore ways to continue the conversation “The Ransom” has started. 

There have been reprint requests of the articles. The Times is prioritizing the ones inside Haiti and to run the series in full with a newspaper and schools.

Potentially turning the series into a book and creating an audio version in Creole are among the ideas that have surfaced, the team said. 

Haiti should be known as the first free Black country of the Americas that overthrew slavery, seven decades before it happened in the United States.

Catherine Porter, foreign correspondent, The New York Times 

Most striking for the project team, however, are the instances of regular people taking the articles on their own to educate each other about Haiti’s history. Porter said an organization of Haitian-American community activists in Miami, for example, is starting a book club where members plan to read the articles over several weeks and invite historians to speak.

During Monday’s panel, Pierre-Pierre challenged Haitians and Haitian diaspora to take the next step forward in driving positive change in Haiti, now that the New York Times has sparked the conversation widely. In the diaspora, he said, Haitian leaders should advocate for the project’s findings to be taught in the schools, particularly those in Haitian enclaves with large Haitian populations. 

“I think we could first try to petition the Haitian government to use this information in the schools,” he said. “It is really important that the young Haitians coming up understand the historical context in which they’re growing up.” 

Haitians demand more accurate portrayals

Contacted by The Haitian Times moments after the panel about Haiti’s one-line description, people in Haiti were quick to offer thoughts. 

“For history, a Haitian must be proud to link with this heritage that the ancestors have changed the world,” said Elira Antoine, a community organizer in Sequin, a village 17 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. “Haiti is the land of freedom. It is in Haiti, for the first time in history, that a general freedom was proclaimed — everyone is equal.”

“Other nations call Haiti one of the poorest countries in the world,” said Arnold Leger, a construction foreman in Jacmel, a picturesque city 60 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince. “But, Haiti is a rich country, because of its potential that is not utilized or not utilized well. For example: we have a sun, rivers and youth that are priceless.”

The translation of “The Ransom” and its accompanying timeline graphic was the first article that appeared in the New York Times in Creole, the dominant language of Haiti. 

Neel, for her part, said facilitating the conversation with such an influential media institution is in line with The Haitian Times’ mission to bridge the gap between Haitians and the mainstream, and help shape the future of Haiti and Haitian communities.

“Language is critical in shaping perceptions,” Neel said. “We’re thrilled to see this openness at The New York Times to change how it speaks about Haiti”

“In the continuing effort to tell nuanced, contextual stories about our beloved homeland, we have to do the work – however big or small – to write new chapters of Haiti’s history,” she added. “That entails using affirming language to describe our long-downtrodden, yet resilient country.”

An earlier version of this article was published June 21, 2022. It has since been edited for clarity.

J.O. Haselhoef is the author of “Give & Take: Doing Our Damnedest NOT to be Another Charity in Haiti.” She co-founded "Yonn Ede Lot" (One Helping Another), a nonprofit that partnered with volunteer groups in La Montagne ("Lamontay"), Haiti from 2007-2013. She is a 2022 Fellow for the Columbia School of Journalism's Age Boom Academy. She writes and lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. Harmony
    Billions in relief funds flowed – but Haiti’s own powerful ruined what it could have done. Don’t lay the blame only on Haiti’s powerful though, there’s others far less powerful who amount too far greater in body count than the few powerful. Then their are those inbetween – yes those too.
    Haiti needs harmony. The practicle “to do” list – root out the gang problem, establish a sound police culture, get the electricity grid working. . .all these things are wonderful goals, but you must have HARMONY inside Haiti 1st. People constantly tearing down what another builds up has been instrumental in Haiti’s reputation nowadays. Several billion over a hundred years is not the cause. Look north to see how billions are tossed around monthly and how riots form & flow from peaceful protest of 17 million citizens in the nation’s capital. Again, the intention of a few to tear down the good work of others produces historic ruin.
    HARMONY is a spiritual outcome of TRUTH. Find it & PEACE will build Haiti beyond it’s wildest dreams.

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply