Broadcast news segments last week of journalists setting down their microphones to assist Hurricane Harvey victims raised anew questions of when doing so is appropriate. Most journalists are loathe to become part of the story they’re covering, and for good reason: adhering to the role of impartial observer is usually a critical component of the notion of journalistic credibility. Bearing witness is a moral imperative deeply embedded in journalistic DNA. And yet it is often not so simple. Stepping out of one’s role should not be taken lightly, of course. At the same time, the value of that role may be outweighed by circumstances in which others might face imminent danger where the journalist can safely provide aid.
Journalists covering events of human suffering often face split-second decisions on whether to intervene. Some have done so, others have not. Some key factors to consider are the nature of the danger and whether their assistance is critical for safety. Intervening in extreme situations is actually good for the public to witness, some have argued, and can also be good for journalism. In some cases, however, broadcast journalists covering Harvey lay down their microphones not because of imminent danger, but merely to lend a hand to rescue workers escorting elderly residents from their flooded homes. In one live episode, CNN reporter Ed Lavandera kept the camera rolling as he helps lift a resident into a rescue boat he’s riding in. Such casual abandonment of their observer role looked more like moments of self-aggrandizement rather than critical, moral responses.
The question of whether journalists should intervene is an old, recurring one. During a civil rights march in the early 1960s in Selma, Alabama, a photographer for Life magazine witnessed sheriff’s deputies shoving children to the ground. The photographer stopped taking photos and went to help the children. Later, Martin Luther King Jr. heard about the incident and spoke with the photojournalist. “The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it,” he said. “I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray” (Smith, 2008, p. 438). South African photojournalist Kevin Carter was famously vilified for his photo of a starving child and a vulture during the Sudanese famine in 1993. Though Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo, many criticized him for taking the photo instead of helping the child. (Actually, he did so after he took the picture.) More recently, another South African photojournalist, James Oatway, photographed a group of thugs attacking an immigrant who later died. Oatway said the attackers scattered when they realized he was photographing the scene, at which point Oatway helped take the victim to a nearby hospital. “I don't think that one’s presence can be used as a weapon to intervene,” he said later. “You are there to bear witness – sometimes your presence may not affect the situation. Other times it may hurt someone or it may help someone – but you are there to do your job, which is to bear witness” (Chinula, 2017). Others have taken the opposite position. Fletcher Johnson, a veteran photographer for ABC news, witnessed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. After several days of straightforward reporting, Johnson found a boy whose parents had died in a refugee camp, and he decided to take him personally to an orphanage. “You would not want to leave that kind of place and say, ‘All I did was make pictures,’” Johnson recounted (Simpson, 2006). Two other journalists debated similar circumstances when one, Sonia Nazario of the Los Angeles Times, spent weeks following a 17-year-old Honduran boy’s harrowing journey to the United States. (Nazario won a Pulitzer for her work in 2003.) For two weeks in Mexico City, Enrique struggled to scrape together $10 for a phone card to call his mother while Nazario shadowed him. “I’ve got a cellphone in my purse the whole time,” Nazario said. “But I don’t offer it to him, because I felt that would change the course of his story” (Fitts & Pring, 2014). However, Alex Kotlowitz of the Wall Street Journal, who worked with Nazario, disagreed. “I would have let him use [my cellphone],” Kotlowitz said. “There wouldn’t have been any question about it.”
The best journalists never lose sight of the value of impartiality, but neither do they treat the notion of objectivity as sacred. Indeed, prominent media theorist Theodore Glasser lamented the damage objectivity has done to journalism:
"Objective reporting has transformed journalism into something more technical than intellectual; it has turned the art of story-telling into the technique of report writing. And most unfortunate of all, objective reporting has denied journalists their citizenship; as impartial reporters, journalists are expected to be morally disengaged and politically inactive…. Objective reporting is more of a custom than a principle, more a habit of mind than a standard of performance” (1984).
Media researcher Roger Simpson has suggested some “rules of engagement” to help journalists navigate this difficult issue. “There are times when journalists must engage with the stories they cover, for the good of their craft, themselves, and the subjects of their stories,” Simpson said. “But there are also times when they must step back, allow events to unfold, and do their jobs” (Simpson, 2006). Simpson offers three key guidelines:
"My ideal journalists put aside the camera or notebook when there’s a reasonable chance their actions will help others or prevent harm. In the process, they can recognize the symptoms of stress and emotional injury in themselves and others, and they can better convey the emotional dimension of their stories. Getting involved isn’t just good for the journalists and their subjects. It can also be good for journalism and the public."
In the cases where cameras aimed at Harvey victims who were not in serious danger, the broadcast journalists who became part of the story just to tug on viewer heartstrings or boost ratings cheapened themselves and their craft. Instead, they should have turned off the camera until they were ready to resume working as journalists.
Chinula, Mandla. (2017, April 6). When should photojournalists intervene when reporting breaking news? Available:https://ijnet.org/en/blog/when-should-photojournalists-intervene-while-reporting-breaking-news
Fitts, A., & Pring, N. (July/August 2014). Are we journalists first?
The longstanding debate about whether and when a reporter can intervene in a story is rekindled in the age of inequality. Available: http://archives.cjr.org/feature/are_we_journalists_first.php
Glasser, T.J. (1984, February). Objectivity precludes responsibility. Quill magazine.
Simpson, R. (2006, September 1). The rules of engagement. Available: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/the_rules_of_engagement
Smith, R. (2008). Ethics in Journalism. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Plaisance, P.L. (2002). The journalist as moral witness: Michel Ignatieff’s pluralistic philosophy for a global media culture. Journalism 3 (2), 205-222.