Let's start with the definition: "looting," according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, means to "steal goods from (a place), typically during a war or riot." So is it fair to call post-earthquake scavenging for food, water, and goods in Haiti "looting," as the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Daily Beast have done?

It may make semantic sense, but a rising backlash of (mainly left-leaning) bloggers says the mainstream media's embrace of the term is not only unfair, but even racist. Critics--spearheaded partly by burgeoning hipster-pundit site The Awl--argue that the media is too quick to see "looting" in desperate Haitians' hunt for food and water. Here's why:

  • Media Just Following a Script, argues Chris Lehmann in The Awl. Lehmann writes a barnstormer take-down of the term, digging into details of WSJ and NYT articles that suggest Haitians were taking and sharing goods out of necessity. He concludes "It is, of course, an article of faith in Timesland, and the mediasphere at large, that reckless disturbance of the social peace is the role scripted for poor people in the wake of a disaster--especially those who happen to be darker complexioned, and thereby conveniently saddled with all the coded insinuations that typically accompany "culture of poverty" arguments."
  • Remember Katrina's 'Looting?' Cord Jefferson at Campus Progress reminds readers that reports of violence and theft in Katrina's aftermath turned out to be exaggerated. He interviews Dr. Kathleen Tierney at the University of Colorado, who says in both Haiti and Katrina's case "There is an institutionalized racism in the way these poor black disaster victims are treated."
  • Foreign Media Using Word, Too, Despite Slim Evidence, writes Marc Herman at Global Voices. Herman says that Polish, German, French, and Spanish journalists have all resorted to counterparts of the word to describe the chaos. Yet, Herman notes, "blog and media reports of looting appear to be based on only a few cases"
  • Is Taking a Bag of Rice While Starving 'Looting'? Choire Sicha and Tom Scocca at The Awl debated one of the first reports on looting. Reacting to news of people taking rice from a "half collapsed" supermarket in Port-au-Prince, Scocca deadpans "I'm sorry, if an earthquake hits Silver Spring, I am more than ready to go scavenge a bag of rice from the half-collapsed Giant." Eric Zorn at the Chicago Tribune echoes a similar idea, asking "What wouldn't you do if members of your family were dying? If you thought you could save them with a little humanitarian freelance redistribution of resources?"