Monday, February 22, 2010

Journalists' involvement in stories they cover

It must be hard having two professions — or two callings or two conflicting views — and being caught up during a time when both are of tremendous value. This has been the case with many journalists in the past, though they often weigh between the principles of being a journalist and simply being a human being. But for Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is both a CNN anchor and medical doctor, his dilemma was much more complex during his recent trip to Haiti.

Gupta assisted with many medical procedures, volunteering his time to help so many of the terribly injured Haitians suffering on the streets of Port-au-Prince. I'm not in any way suggesting the need for medical assistance was not great — it obviously was. What I'm saying it perhaps Gupta, and the others who were similarly involved — relinquish their journalist duties if the need for these services is so great.

In an earlier post, I discussed the general ethics of reporting in Haiti and some of the scrutiny surrounding the issue. Certainly it's very complicated, but I maintained that journalists need to avoid becoming part of the stories they cover. I've found this view to be increasingly less popular, as my colleagues have expressed the opposite view in class discussions. They say they're human first, journalist second, and if need be, they would step in. I can't say I disagree with that statement, but it was their follow-up to that I found troubling.

OK, so you step in if you have to, but then what? Most responded: nothing. They would go about reporting and covering the story as if nothing happened. But is that really possible? Is it possible to, say, carry a wounded child out of harm's way one second, and the next second stare at the lens of a camera and objectively report on the incident without any emotional investment or other similar reaction?

But recently, during a visit to NYU's Reporting New York class, USA Today reporter Marisol Bello, who covered the Haiti disaster for USA Today, expressed the very same view I have on this matter. He point of reference was to Anderson Cooper and Sanjay Gupta, who has garnered a lot of attention and praise for their efforts in both reporting on and helping in Haiti. “I just feel like we should never be part of the story,” she said. “In this way I can be old-school. If you want to be an actor in that, and if you need to be an advocate or aid worker, do that so then you get interviewed.”

Anderson Cooper even won January's Sidney Award for his efforts in Haiti (an award my partner Katy Bolger won for her story and my photos in October for our Navajo coverage). This award is extremely prestigious, and it almost irks me that he was awarded it considering the circumstances.

An article in the LA Times quoted someone who echoes my opinion to the T: But some media ethicists said medical correspondents should consider forgoing their journalistic roles if they're going to participate in the relief effort. While reporters should help when they can save a life or prevent profound harm, "I think it's very hard for an individual who is professionally and emotionally engaged in saving lives to be able to simultaneously step back from the medical work and practice independent journalistic truth-telling," said Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute and journalism professor at DePauw University.

What do you think?

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