Is Looting a Loaded Word?

Not long after NPR's first stories about the Haiti earthquake started appearing, listeners complained about hearing the word "looting."

"The use of the term 'looting' for people desperate to survive is, frankly, insulting," wrote RJ Bourn of New York City. "It implies widespread opportunism for the sake of gain rather than horrifying hunger, thirst and medical need."

Another wrote: "The action of securing essential survival food and water during the life and death chaos of a natural disaster is not 'looting', it is human need," said Barbara Goldfeder of Nahcotta, WA.

This is a tough one. What the listeners say makes sense, but it is also true that looting has taken place in Haiti.

"There is nothing pejorative about the word 'loot,' " said Didi Schanche, the foreign editor handling Haiti coverage. "There are indeed people who are taking food and water as and where they can find it as a matter of survival, and we've mentioned them. But there is nothing eleemosynary about guys taking off with three televisions strapped onto the back of a motorcycle. We use 'loot' as it's defined."

[Cambridge Online Dictionary definition of looting.]

In every large-scale disaster, no matter where it is, the social codes that allow us to live peacefully often break down when people are tired, hungry, hurt and frustrated. Haiti is no different.

Looting is taking place and NPR should report it, but the issue is one of proportion — how much looting is taking place, how often, where? Why is it being done? What is being taken? And is that the only story that NPR is telling?

In an online commentary on npr.org, Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania Law School wrote: "Taking diapers, infant formula, food and flashlight batteries is a kind of self-help humanitarian relief morality surely allows. Who could let their child or grandmother go hungry in a catastrophic emergency not of one's own making simply to preserve the ethical rule against stealing?"

So as a moral, if not a legal, issue, it depends on what is being taken and for what reason. In Haiti, based on NPR's reporting, many people are taking what's not theirs for humanitarian reasons but some are also taking advantage of the instability. Both reasons need to be reported carefully, sensitively and in context. Here's NPR's Haiti coverage.

Wednesday night, All Things Considered led with a piece by Jason Beaubien on how panic and looting, a week after the quake, are escalating. But of the five Haiti stories tentatively slated for news shows on Thursday, not one has to do with looting.


Richter Scale:

Another listener, Mark Powell, insists that in reporting on any earthquake, the phrase "Richter Scale" is no longer operable. It has been replaced by the "Moment Magnitude Scale," he said.

"The listener is correct," said Christopher Joyce, a correspondent on the Science Desk. "We use 'magnitude.' Richter is obsolete."

Overall, NPR policy is to avoid using the term Richter Scale, but it has slipped in. On Wednesday, substitute host Rebecca Roberts on Talk of the Nation used the words "Richter Scale," but then her guest pointed out that the term is outdated.

ROBERTS: Which also gets to the question of - the Richter Scale is not a steady incremental scale, it's an exponential scale? Can you...

HARRIS: That's true. Yeah.

ROBERTS: ...just explain that a little bit?

HARRIS: Yeah. They - basically, each point on the magnitude scale, they don't say Richter anymore. That's sort of a little outmoded but...

ROBERTS: Oh, I'm sorry. I'm passe. SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

NPR also relies on the Associated Press stylebook, which advises:

Earthquake magnitudes are measures of earthquake size calculated from ground motion recorded on seismographs. The Richter scale, named for Dr. Charles F. Richter, is no longer widely used.

Magnitudes are usually reported simply as magnitude 6.7, for example, without specifying the scale being used. The various scales differ only slightly from one another.

In the first hours after a quake, earthquake size should be reported as a preliminary magnitude of 6.7, for example. Early estimates are often revised, and it can be several days before seismologists calculate a final figure.

Magnitudes are measured on several different scales. The most commonly used measure is the moment magnitude, related to the area of the fault on which an earthquake occurs, and the amount the ground slips

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