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.