Behind the Story: Crisis in Haiti

NBCU Academy Presents “Behind the Story”

After the Biden administration deported thousands of Haitian migrants who had crossed the border into Texas in September, NBC News correspondent Jacob Soboroff traveled to Haiti to examine the conditions that led many of them to flee their country. He and senior producer Aarne Heikkila shared their experiences reporting on the ground in Haiti with NBCU Academy, including the detailed planning involved to ensure their safety and how they reacted to fast-moving developments. The following excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

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Jacob Soboroff: Because you’re the senior producer for our group, what are three major things that you’re always keeping in mind when planning a reporting trip like this?

Aarne Heikkila: Number one for us was accommodations. The hotel became our bureau in Haiti. It was our workspace, it was where we did live shots, it was where we sat down to write and script. It really became our central hub. 

Number two was transmission. We had two methods to transmit from Haiti. Both essentially allowed us to broadcast from there, whether it’s from cell service or from satellite.

Number three, clear communication and flexibility. We kind of take for granted cell service and being able to have access to communication all the time. In a place like Haiti where it’s so spotty, it takes a lot of planning. You really have to let people map out the schedule for the day so everybody’s on the same page about where you’re going to be.

Heikkila: One example of having to roll with the punches was just arriving in Haiti. We landed at about the same time as a deportation flight.

Soboroff: Just maybe less than an hour until one arrived, yeah.

Heikkila: You had done your homework and you realized that the flight was arriving shortly after we were going to arrive, so we knew we were going to have to hit the ground running. Thankfully, JB [Jean-Bernard Rutagarama] — our cameraman — had done his homework and found the best location at the airport for trying to get a signal out.

All of us were sweating, we were just a couple minutes from air. And we weren’t sure if it was going to get out or not. But thankfully, we were able to get out.

Soboroff: It can’t be overstated how important that moment was, because that was when live on the air we were able to talk to a family who had just been deported, landed on the ground and walked out of the gates of the airport. You see that there’s a desperation on people’s faces about landing in a country they haven’t been in, many of them for as long as a decade. And there’s a fear or a worry about what life is going to be like from that moment forward. So even before we left the gates, you realize this is a profound moment for these hundreds of families getting off the plane. And then the minute you leave the airport, you see that life in Haiti is very difficult…. At the end of the day, we’re storytellers. We’re there as the sort of vessel through which the people we meet and the experiences that we have are going to be communicated.  

Heikkila: You’re kind of seeing the story through our eyes when we’re down there. We’re, like you said, the vessels for people to tell their stories of how they’re living. So it’s a responsibility, but it’s one that we take very seriously. And I think the more flexibility you can have when you’re on the ground in a situation like this, the better.