Haiti Horrors Renew Journalism Debate

As an undergrad, I studied broadcast journalism and saw myself someday working in the radio side of the industry. I really enjoyed journalism but came to realize that as fun as it might be, there was nothing tangible to motivate me. There was no reciprocation of my work that could motivate me. Seeing my name in print, hearing my voice, and eeing my face on tv could sustain the professional side of me, but were not going to be factors that could sustain the human side of me. So I abandoned journalism for teaching (the right move and one I’d make a million times again).

Anyway, one of the most interesting facets of my journalism education was the ethical side of it. My journalism ethics class was fascinating, and I am reminded of the most spirited discussion we had in the class. The debate was about the journalist’s obligation to journalism versus the obligation to humanity. Our talk centered on Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer winning photograph, taken in the Sudan, of a seemingly malnourished and dying baby lined up in the sights of a vulture, clearly about to become the bird’s prey. When Carter ended his life at age 33, not two years after snapping the photo, many felt that he did so as a response to the internal battle his conscience was waging with his professional obligation to report the news objectively.

Photo by Kevin Carter

The question was posed to us: As a journalist, what should the photographer have done? Should he have snapped the photo and left the baby there (as he did)? Or, should he have snapped the photo and taken the baby to safety? To me this is the essence of my frustration with journalists.

Now, I will be totally forthright in saying that I have purposely avoided watching coverage of the disaster in Haiti. It’s not that, a) I’m not fascinated by large scale news stories like this, or b) that I am indifferent to the plight of the devastated Haitian community. Rather, it’s the combination of those factors that keeps me away: I am worried that if I inhale the nonstop coverage, I will become indifferent to the crying, screaming, and endless piles of bodies. And if I did that, I would cease being myself.

Despite not having watched much coverage, I have read a little. And today, I read online in the New York Times that some reporters were overstepping the bounds of professionalism as they covered the story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to see humanity from these otherwise ruthless individuals. Yet there is a significant part of me that feels, in a very traditional sense, that the journalist’s role is to give us, “just the facts, please.”

By the end of the Kevin Carter debate back in college, I was one of a smattering of people holding out on one side of the issue. While most said Carter should have removed the baby from harm, I argued that what he did – as a journalist – was totally proper. Had he helped the baby, he would have been interfering in the story. My human heart told my professional heart it was crazy, but I am one of the ones who feels that in the field of journalism, you are a journalist first and a human being second. That’s one of the reasons I wanted out. (From Time: Carter was painfully aware of the photojournalist’s dilemma. “I had to think visually,” he said once, describing a shoot-out. “I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man’s face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’ But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can’t do it, get out of the game.”)

People will read this and say I am a dreadful soul. However, I truly believe that journalists exist to just tell a story. It’s not the journalist’s duty to do anything else, and, in fact, becoming involved diminishes the credibility of the reporter and the organization.

This brings me to another issue I pondered today. In the above linked column, I also read that CNN was airing footage of Dr. Sanjay Gupta running through the streets to help a victim, showing it ad infinitum while he was speaking, effectively making him part of the story, if not the story itself. What service is done showing Gupta this way? He is only one doctor dealing with an overwhelming situation. It also made me wonder what role he is serving in Haiti. Is he a doctor or a reporter? Can you be both?

The line is so fine in journalism now that hardly any truly objective outlets still exist. Am I stuck in a time warp when I complain that journalists are allowing themselves to be human? Maybe I am.

Let me just be clear. I think any human being sincerely showing compassion and aiding the recovery efforts in Haiti – and doubling as a journalist – is a good person. As a journalist in the purest sense of the job, though, it might be time to reconsider your role.

I realize these may be unpopular opinions, yet I’ll stand by them. That’s just the world as I see it.

It’s a time for all of us to open our wallets and give any amount to the Red Cross that we can. The earthquake will come to define Port-au-Prince and Haiti for decades, and we have a responsibility, from our comfortable, safe homes, to assist with what we can. Please donate.


8 responses to “Haiti Horrors Renew Journalism Debate

  1. I have to disagree. Objectivity does not equal impassivity and anyone in the media will tell you there’s no such thing as 100% objectivity. All news has some aspect of the reporter in it, whether it is stated or not (including such things as who they decided to quote or not, etc). Reporting facts is not synonymous with not acting to affect the world around you. Kevin Carter was right to walk away not because he was being an objective reporter but because it wouldn’t have solved the bigger problem of starvation and poverty; should he have done SOMETHING such as find a local Red Cross or whatever, yes, but to go and save everyone who needs it is a question every individual faces not just reporters. What do you do when you see people begging on the streets? Do you give them all money? Welcome them to your home for dinner? Probably not — does that make you an evil person? Definitely not. But there are things we all do that, we hope, makes the world a better place. And journalists do the same — as eyewitnesses to often the most horrendous catastrophes in the world, as in Haiti.

    Journalists get numb just as emergency room doctors get numb. It’s a coping mechanism, for sure, but it doesn’t mean they feel nothing. The job they have to do is just bigger than themselves as individuals. That’s what keeps the better ones going, I think.

    • Of course, I feel that the journalist is one of the most powerful entities in society – when stories are told, change happens. I also believe the camera is an immeasurably powerful tool.

      I never meant that “objectivity equals impassivity.” Everyone feels emotion. The trick is to get the emotion – at least your personal emotion – out of your reporting. I remember a high school journalism teacher of mine, Jewish, telling me about one of his first assignments as a cub reporter – to interview a local neo-Nazi leader. He said, “In reality I wanted to go punch the guy in the face, but I had to report his story as he told it.”

      It’s wise to stir emotion in your reader or viewer. Doing so invests the reader/viewer in your story and might compel him to do something positive about it. It also will probably drive ratings and sales up, which is, sadly, the number one goal of too many outlets today.

      As for your analogy comparing Carter to the regular Joe walking down the street, I don’t see it that way. Yes, the journalist ought to be working to compel change in the world – this is one of the reasons, if not THE reason, why so many frightened totalitarian regimes ban their work. And of course, this work for change must be informed by the journalist’s own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. However, that does not mean the journalist should involve himself in the story other than by reporting it. A journalist just has to accept that with this territory comes a certain binding of the hands. As a journalist, you have to wear blinders.

      And when you sign up for the job, you need to accept that fact, and be ready to deal with any hardship it causes you.

  2. you should check out this movie if you haven’t already: http://www.war-photographer.com/

  3. I think Kevin Carter had another option. He could have got the shot and then helped the little girl. If she wasn’t too far gone.

    Having said that a photojournalist covering a widespread calamity can’t help everyone so at some point I suppose you just have to shoot and move on.

    Kevin Carter was bothered by this. He committed suicide.

    • Had Carter helped the girl, two things would have happened.
      1) He casts aside his role as a journalist and puts his camera away, wanders the streets and helps everyone he can.

      2) He resumes photographing the Sudan, helps no one else, and winds up beating himself up over only helping one.

      In situation 1, he becomes a humanitarian hero but a joke as a journalist. In situation 2, he helps save one life and continues as a successful photographer, but is continually gnawed at by the thoughts of what else he could have done.

      Tough choice to make, no doubt.

  4. Pingback: Journalist/Doctor Debate « The World As I See It

  5. Pingback: Comment: Too many angles on suffering? | Photo Album Space

  6. I think you have your priorities skewed. To leave the child was simply UNETHICAL.
    No amount of blathering can justify “journalistic integrity” if there is such a thing especially in this day of embedded read (propaganda) journalists. It is up to journalists to expose the lies and hypocrisy that lead to these humanitarian crises, not photograph the end result. Scum. Paparazzi shit. None report the truth or we would ALL be aware of the Banking cartels that rule our Governments.

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