Sunday, January 31, 2010

The ethics of reporting in Haiti

To me, one of the most dynamic, engaging discussions in journalism revolves around ethics. Unfortunately, I don't think these discussions happen as often as they should. But with all the coverage coming from Haiti recently, I was glad to see a few articles tackle these issues.

In journalism ethics, there is a wide spectrum of beliefs that range from the very traditional views (Journalists should never be part of the story, ever, in any way, at all. Ever.) to newer, more "liberal" views (Journalists can be part of the story and still cover it with no problem whatsoever.) Then there are those views that fall somewhere in the middle (Journalists are humans first, journalists second. Give them a break!). I tend to fall in the middle, with a bit of a traditional slant. I feel the onset of citizen journalism and rising political/social involvement has begun to warp journalists' ethical framework. And it doesn't help that these discussions hardly ever occur.

So when I read Poynter's Jan. 22 article SPJ tells journalists in Haiti not to become part of the story, my interest was immediately sparked. The article address the Society of Professional Journalists' recent declaration in which the "SPJ cautions journalists to avoid making themselves part of the stories they are reporting." But what does that really mean? SPJ President Kevin Smith mentioned "advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage" as examples of failing to provide independent, objective newsgathering. Essentially, the group wants to remind journalists to "avoid blurring the lines between being a participant and being an objective observer."

One of my big projects during my undergrad examined this very issue, specifically citing the reporting on Hurricane Katrina at the height of the devastation. One particular issue involved reporters who were assisting in rescue efforts, inviting refugees onboard their boats, handing out water bottles and lending cell phones. To many, these seem like the most basic acts a person can do for another, but as journalists, is that going too far? Does this "blur the line between being a participant and being an objective observer"?

The same goes for the situation in Haiti. If a reporter is assisting in aid efforts and becoming so emotionally invested, will it affect his/her ability to report the news?

I'm not going to pretend to know the answer. This situation is a very, very sticky one, and I can never know what it would be like to cover such devastation and tragedy. I can only imagine what these brave journalists are going through. My guess is many of them will never be the same when they come back. But I do think there is merit in what the SPJ is saying. It can't be easy, but I think our jobs as journalists are not easy — they are challenging and messy and extremely trying. And it has to be essential for those journalists to do their best to provide that objective account that only they can offer.

The SPJ certainly received some harsh criticism in reaction to these statements, but I applaud them for putting out that unpopular view. At a time when no one is thinking about the ethics of reporting in Haiti, and understandably so, it's of the utmost important to remind these professionals to keep it in mind.

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