Challenges in Journalism

The Ken­tucky Her­ald Leader report­ed an unusu­al sto­ry. An emo­tion­al­ly upset woman called up, and said that she had found the scalp of a dead friend’s remains, in the woods where he had acci­den­tal­ly died. His body had already been tak­en to the coroner’s office cou­ple of days ago. She stored the 8x4 inch piece in a trash bag in her freez­er, but didn’t sum­mon the courage to tell the author­i­ties or any­one. Final­ly, she called the Her­ald Leader. After some urg­ing by the reporter, the remains were final­ly deliv­ered to the coro­ner and the sto­ry ends.

Objectivity vs. Transparency

The real sto­ry that intrigues me begins here, in the Editor’s Behind The Head­lines blog, since the reporter who actu­al­ly took the remains from the woman and deliv­ered them to the coro­ner, was the same one who wrote the news report. No one else was involved. The news arti­cle sim­ply referred to him­self as ‘the reporter’ anony­mous­ly, thus wrong­ly pre­tend­ing the sto­ry to be objec­tive. The Edi­tor writes:

And thus a new chap­ter was added to the lore of the Her­ald-Leader news­room — and a rather inter­est­ing eth­i­cal dis­cus­sion was borne. The eth­i­cal conun­drum was two-fold: Should a reporter accept prof­fered body parts? And, if a reporter does accept said body parts, has he become so tied up in the sto­ry that he can no longer objec­tive­ly write it? Opin­ions in the news­room dif­fered on these points, as is often the case in jour­nal­ism.

The ques­tion of whether the reporter should have helped the woman is a non-ques­tion for me. A reporter is first a human being, and then a reporter. About the sec­ond, I agree with Josh from CNET, who opines that objec­tiv­i­ty becomes impos­si­ble in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions, the only sen­si­ble approach is trans­paren­cy and full-dis­clo­sure. Patrick, from the Jakar­ta Post has a strong, well-argued opin­ion that the tra­di­tion­al ide­al of objec­tiv­i­ty is not only pre­ten­tious, it is false. He says:

The truth is that objec­tiv­i­ty is not only an impos­si­ble ide­al to aspire to; it might not even real­ly be worth the effort. What would make far more sense would be for the press to aspire to accu­ra­cy, to fair­ness, to even-hand­ed­ness, and to trans­paren­cy. These at least, are attain­able aspi­ra­tions.

Anguish vs. Numbness

This fur­ther led me to think about jour­nal­ists from their per­spec­tive — I mean real­ly putting on jour­nal­is­tic shoes and cap. We blog­gers are used to bash­ing the media. How many times have we deplored the way they scav­enge the rel­a­tives of the dead or miss­ing like vul­tures intent on squeez­ing every bloody drop of emo­tion to keep the audi­ence glued? A British reporter cov­er­ing the Con­go Cri­sis once walked into a crowd of Bel­gian evac­uees and shout­ed, “Any­one here been raped and speaks Eng­lish?”.

Now, step out­side your frame of ref­er­ence for a moment, and read this arti­cle by war cor­re­spon­dent Jack Shafer on Slate, “In Praise of Insen­si­tive Reporters”: There may be no tougher assign­ment in jour­nal­ism than knock­ing on the door of a moth­er who has lost her young daugh­ter to a killer and ask­ing, “How do you feel?”. He argues that if the US media had stopped cov­er­ing the Vir­ginia Tech mas­sacre after the real news was over, the pub­lic would have riot­ed. Read about Kari­na Bland, who cov­ered a 4-month inves­ti­ga­tion into into young chil­dren burned, beat­en, and sex­u­al­ly defiled, and became an excep­tion in the indus­try when she took recourse in cri­sis coun­sel­ing.

Sol­diers, police, fire-fight­ers, and emer­gency med­ical per­son­nel — all receive spe­cial train­ing for deal­ing with trau­mat­ic events. Jour­nal­ists, who are rou­tine­ly involved in the same sit­u­a­tions, receive none. Fur­ther, their indus­try shuns any signs of weak­ness, so reporters are used to bot­tling up their stress. They refuse to accept their grief, their hor­ror, even to them­selves.

The Apotheosis

The cli­max of the poi­so­nous mix of harsh crit­i­cism and adu­la­to­ry praise that jour­nal­ists can encounter, came a few months after the pub­li­ca­tion of this pho­to­graph in the NYT:

KevinCarter_Sudan

This pho­to­graph show­ing a starv­ing Sudanese child being stalked by a vul­ture won Kevin Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for fea­ture pho­tog­ra­phy. Along with the award, he also received crit­i­cism world­wide, apt­ly stat­ed by St. Peters­burg Flori­da Times: “The man adjust­ing his lens to take just the right frame of her suf­fer­ing, might just as well be a preda­tor, anoth­er vul­ture on the scene.”

His pho­to­graph made the world weep, but anoth­er tragedy was to fol­low. Two months after receiv­ing the Pulitzer, Carter com­mit­ted sui­cide. Super­fi­cial observers relate his sui­cide either to an inabil­i­ty to han­dle fame, or guilt for not inter­ven­ing and help­ing the child in this pho­to. The truth was much more com­plex as revealed by a Time mag­a­zine spe­cial fea­ture.

Susan Moeller tells Carter’s sto­ry in Com­pas­sion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Dis­ease, Famine, War and Death: He had gone into the bush seek­ing relief from the ter­ri­ble star­va­tion and suf­fer­ing he was doc­u­ment­ing, when he encoun­tered the ema­ci­at­ed girl. When he saw the vul­ture land, Carter wait­ed qui­et­ly, hop­ing the bird would spread its wings and give him an even more dra­mat­ic image. It didn’t, and he even­tu­al­ly chased the bird away. The girl gath­ered her strength and resumed her jour­ney toward a feed­ing cen­ter. After­ward, writes Moeller, Carter “sat by a tree, talked to God, cried, and thought about his own daugh­ter, Megan.”

Charles Fre­und puts the pic­ture in per­spec­tive, in his arti­cle in Rea­son Mag­a­zine: West­ern news­pa­per read­ers saw a lit­tle girl. Carter, in the Sudanese vil­lage where he land­ed, was watch­ing 20 peo­ple starve to death each hour. Per­haps he might have laid aside his cam­era to give the vic­tims what suc­cor he could (and thus nev­er have encoun­tered the girl in the bush); per­haps his pho­tographs could have led to greater help than he could per­son­al­ly give. Should he have car­ried one girl to safe­ty? Carter was sur­round­ed by hun­dreds of starv­ing chil­dren. When he sat by the tree and wept, it was beneath a bur­den of futil­i­ty. But his was not a pho­to of futil­i­ty, nor of mass star­va­tion, nor of reli­gious fac­tion­al­ism, nor of civ­il war. Read­ers saw a lit­tle girl. In part, at least, Carter died for that.

Fur­ther Read­ing: Wikipedia on Jour­nal­ism Ethics and Stan­dards, and a nice col­lec­tion of arti­cles on jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing war.

Tech­no­rati Tags: , , , , , ,

Share this post :

This entry was posted in culture, media, photography, society. Bookmark the permalink.
  • //A British reporter cov­er­ing the Con­go Cri­sis once walked into a crowd of Bel­gian evac­uees and shout­ed, “Any­one here been raped and speaks English?”.//Unbelievable,How can one be so insen­si­tive?
    “: There may be no tougher assign­ment in jour­nal­ism than knock­ing on the door of a moth­er who has lost her young daugh­ter to a killer and ask­ing, “How do you feel?”.you can trust the ‘AAJ­TAk’ guys to do this.This actu­al­ly sounds famil­iar. I have heard this so many times after a calami­ty has struck some­body.

  • Superb per­spec­tive! It is aston­ish­ing to hear that objec­tiv­i­ty is an unat­tain­able char­ac­ter in a jour­nal­ist. One might as well say the same about a doc­tor or gen­er­al. Does see­ing one’s men dying of bombs and shrap­nel make a gen­er­al cry out in despair, boil in rage, or scare him into ter­rorised sur­ren­der?
    Obvi­ous­ly, objec­tiv­i­ty is an inte­gral part of a pro­fes­sion, espe­cial­ly those involv­ing demands on one’s inter­ests and val­ues. This may per­tain less to the store­keep­er and engi­neer, but def­i­nite­ly is manda­to­ry for every self-respect­ing pro­fes­sion­al in jour­nal­ism, med­i­cine, dis­as­ter man­age­ment, reha­bil­i­ta­tion, and so many more fields.
    In the giv­en first instance, it was wrong for the reporter to write him­self, with an obvi­ous con­flict of inter­est. He should have been inter­viewed by anoth­er jour­nal­ist.

  • I liked the way Ram­bodoc com­pared this to a doctor’s pro­fes­sion. We at times won­der why doc­tors are so hard heart­ed as to talk about patients in terms of only dis­eases, but the fact is that doc­tors need to be objective…their pro­fes­sion demands it, oth­er­wise they will become ner­vous wrecks! If the job is such, where suf­fer­ing is seen on a dai­ly basis, the per­son needs a sur­vival tech­nique too, he has to guard him­self if he has to con­tin­ue to do the job. Ofcourse there is the ques­tion of draw­ing a line…too much insen­si­tive­ness can make a bad doc­tor just as too much insen­stive­ness means a poor jour­nal­ist.
    But ofcourse all doc­tors are exposed to suf­fer­ing on a dai­ly basis, but with jour­nal­ists it need not be so, it depends what they are reporters of. But in any case, objec­tiv­i­ty is dif­fi­cult to achieve.
    I have read about Kevin Carter. I would have hes­i­tat­ed to crit­i­cize him, because through his pho­to he must have inspired com­pas­sion in mil­lions of peo­ple, peo­ple who must have got up and done some­thing. Ofcourse, if he had actu­al­ly watched the vul­ture try to harm the child, then I would say he is over­step­ping the limit…but one can­not blame any­one from hav­ing such a thought…everyone has an evil thought once in a while, the dif­fer­ence between a bad per­son and a good one is that a good one refus­es to act on the evil thought.
    Frankly, there is a ten­den­cy to blame jour­nal­ists for every­thing these days. Even when Adnan Patrawala was killed, the media is blamed. Do peo­ple know that it is also the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the police to inform the press whether to go ahead with the sto­ry? I can under­stand if Patrawala’s fam­i­ly blamed the media, in that sit­u­a­tion I would too. But for out­siders, oth­ers to feel that the media was respon­si­ble for his death was to me quite odd. I am nto say­ing that the media should think twice before air­ing such news, I am say­ing to blame the media square­ly is what I find odd.
    Any­way I can go and and on and soon my com­ment will be longer than your post! 🙂

  • The sen­tence should read:
    I am not say­ing that the media should not think twice before air­ing such news.

  • I would add to this that we blog­gers are media in a way. We report on sto­ries and post pic­tures and give edi­to­ri­als. Any wit­ness to tragedy whether in per­son on in print is affect­ed.

  • //there is the ques­tion of draw­ing a line…too much insen­si­tive­ness can make a bad doc­tor just as too much insen­stive­ness means a poor journalist.// I agree with you Nita on this.

  • Awe­some post Mahen­dra. No mat­ter how often I see that pic­ture, i still feel depressed and spend hours with­out talk­ing to any­body.
    One of my friends is a pro­fes­sion­al deep sea div­er, and once he nar­rat­ed a sto­ry of a fer­ry that sank in the Ara­bi­an sea killing every­one on board. The author­i­ties had rewards for the div­er who ‘fished out’ max­i­mum num­ber of dead bod­ies. Per­haps that’s the only incen­tive they had to do a job they so much dis­liked.

  • Great post. Well yes jour­nal­ism is one pro­fes­sion in which you need to be hard heart­ed, oth­er­wise you ll be sit­ting in Trau­ma Care Cen­ter half your life. But the direc­tion in which main­stream media is going is just about glo­ry and noth­ing else. If you have time, watch this sem­i­nar by John Pil­ger. I con­sid­er him one of the best and ded­i­cat­ed jour­nal­ists of all times

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4258131083758254736&hl=en

    That is one famous pic­ture from Sudan and did quite make pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive head­lline around the world about Kevin Carter. But one more point which deserves a men­tion here is that the UN and oth­er media agen­cies had issued strict warn­ings against journalists/reporters mak­ing any con­tact with the starv­ing peo­ple because of fear of trans­mit­ting dis­eases. Its not always pos­si­ble to lis­ten to your heart.

  • Pre­rna: //Unbelievable,How can one be so insensitive?//
    Yes…it is cit­ed as one of the most insen­si­tive behav­iors ever by any journalist…I was shocked beyond belief ini­tial­ly.

    //you can trust the ‘AAJ­TAk’ guys to do this.This actu­al­ly sounds famil­iar. I have heard this so many times after a calami­ty has struck somebody.//
    Jack’s next sen­tence is: “Play­ing the news ghoul is made eas­i­er by numb­ing your­self to the anguish of the real vic­tims with self-dis­gust.” When I try to step into such a journalist’s shoes, I think I’m lucky NOT to be a jour­nal­ist!

    Ram­bodoc: Thanks for shar­ing my aston­ish­ment! Regard­ing objec­tiv­i­ty being unat­tain­able, it is sim­i­lar to the Observ­er Effect in Sci­ence.

    I too like the way you’ve com­pared it with oth­er pro­fes­sions.

    Regard­ing not report­ing the sto­ry him­self, it was pos­si­ble in this case to be inter­viewed. But what does one do, when in sit­u­a­tions like for­eign ass­sign­ment, war cor­re­spon­dents, etc., where sched­ule pres­sures and geographical/logistics chal­lenges pre­clude such inter­view­ing and the reporter has to report him­self?

  • Nita: I agree with you that there is the ques­tion of draw­ing a line. Jack says: “There’s a thin line between respon­si­ble jour­nal­ism and out­ra­geous sen­sa­tion­al­ism, and blood­fests like the one in Vir­ginia Tech tend to erase it.” This makes me won­der, are the jour­nal­ists who are con­tin­u­al­ly exposed to hor­ror going into such a per­ma­nent­ly ‘numbed’ state of mind that they can no longer judge the line that we so much want them to respect?

    Carter actu­al­ly chased the bird away, so he def­i­nite­ly did not cross the line. I can per­fect­ly empathize with his des­per­a­tion and com­plete sense of futil­i­ty as so elo­quent­ly described by Charles Fre­und. There can be moments of des­per­a­tion in a nor­mal per­son when one los­es all ‘will’, is inca­pable of act, just because of the state of shock. I admire Carter for the nature of the assign­ments he was will­ing to under­take and act­ing as a medi­um of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that brought some of the worst human con­di­tions under the glob­al spot­light.

    //Frankly, there is a ten­den­cy to blame jour­nal­ists for every­thing these days.//
    That is why this post. I am humbly attempt­ing to exam­ine and under­stand the journalist’s mind, and try­ing to under­stand the root of the insen­si­tiv­i­ty. Unless we under­stand the nature of the root, we can­not achieve any­thing by sim­ply con­tin­u­ing to crit­i­cize the media.

    //Do peo­ple know that it is also the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the police to inform the press whether to go ahead with the story?//
    No, I did not know this. Thank you!

    //I am say­ing to blame the media square­ly is what I find odd.//
    The media has become sort of the punch­ing bag these days. Not that they’re immac­u­late, but its prob­a­bly just that there’s no oth­er punch­ing bag avail­able. Police, politi­cians, crim­i­nals, and court — all the enti­ties involved are beyond the reach of the ordi­nary man. The media is acces­si­ble for crit­i­cism.

    //Anyway I can go and and on and soon my com­ment will be longer than your post!//
    Thanks for the com­ment and there’s no prob­lem with com­ments being longer than the post! 🙂

    Bri­an: //I would add to this that we blog­gers are media in a way.//
    How true! Look­ing at your blog, which I was just begin­ning to peek at, I think you exem­pli­fy this! We had an inter­est­ing debate here pre­vi­ous­ly in my post on the Shield Law: Are Blog­ging Jour­nal­ists Shield­ed? You might find it inter­est­ing.

    Again, thanks for com­ment­ing!

  • Priyank: //No mat­ter how often I see that pic­ture, i still feel depressed and spend hours with­out talk­ing to anybody.// Yes…it is heart-wrench­ing. I appre­ci­ate your sen­si­tiv­i­ty.

    //Perhaps that’s the only incen­tive they had to do a job they so much disliked.//
    Deep-sea div­ing and find­ing bodies…how grue­some! I have always been curi­ous about such pro­fes­sions and how peo­ple cope with them. For e.g. in the cre­ma­to­ri­ums in India, where peo­ple oper­ate the elec­tric fur­naces and cre­mate the dead bod­ies. I know for a fact that most of them do the job only being drunk. Such peo­ple often dis­play insen­si­tiv­i­ty towards the rel­a­tives of the deceased, but we take it for grant­ed, because we can empathize with their job eas­i­ly. That doesn’t hold true with jour­nal­ists, though. We tend to expect all jour­nal­ists to always have the same lev­el of sen­si­tiv­i­ty as we do. Why?

    Oemar: Thanks! I will watch the video over the week­end (can’t download/watch video at work!).

    //strict warn­ings against journalists/reporters mak­ing any con­tact with the starv­ing peo­ple because of fear of trans­mit­ting dis­eases. Its not always pos­si­ble to lis­ten to your heart.//
    Yes, that’s also true. I edit­ed that part out because my post was much too long as I’d ear­li­er draft­ed it. Thanks for not­ing this fact…and nice­ly said!

  • pow­er­ful post that raised a lot of con­flict­ing thoughts in me. Yes one tends to for­get what inner tur­moils tor­ment jour­nal­ists, when most of the time you see their work (e.g. on TV) after post-edit­ing, with dra­mat­ic music play­ing and lat­er in ads. For some rea­son, I get turned off my the “dress­ing” and also unfair­ly asso­ciate with the jour­nal­ists them­selves — some may play that game but not all.

    For gut-wrench­ing sto­ries, I found this not to be as much a prob­lem if they are deliv­ered as doc­u­men­taries — the ones where a lone voice nar­rates in a dead pan voice, with no music to “dra­ma­tize”. It is like they let the sto­ry have its effect on its own account with­out any forc­ing it — they believe the sto­ry itself is pow­er­ful enough. I some­how find that to be more hon­est. I remem­ber watch­ing for the very first about post-Nazi cleanup on pub­lic TV (thou­sands of bod­ies being buried by locals etc.) — very pow­er­ful, in fact way too pow­er­ful. There was no unnec­es­sary drama­ti­za­tion. I also recent­ly saw one about chil­dren in Africa orphaned because their par­ents died of AIDS — again very pow­er­ful.

    I guess my point is that the dress­ing up of these sto­ries that net­works (to attract view­er­ship) ends up being so coun­ter­pro­duc­tive, that it’s fall-out throws a long shad­ow on jour­nal­ism itself. This is the big down­side of the mantra “(even) news is busi­ness”. But what to you do? Every­one needs to make a liv­ing … But when it is *big* busi­ness, I think things get real bad.

  • Arun: very nice com­ment. Because one tends to for­get what inner tur­moil jour­nal­ists go through, I decid­ed to write this post.

    You are right in a way (not all doc­u­men­taries are in the style you describe; Michael Moore being a famous exam­ple), but many doc­u­men­taries do have a cetain dis­pas­sion­ate objec­tiv­i­ty to them. And these doc­u­men­taries don’t attract a large view­er­ship! So you’ve point­ed out a very valid fact that those media chan­nels who are “rat­ing-hun­gry” will tend to sen­sa­tion­al­ize and push their jour­nal­ists to high­er lev­els of numb­ness.

    Giv­en this ‘big busi­ness’, aren’t the TRP rat­ings reflect­ing view­ers’ choic­es? Then why do we just blame the jour­nal­ists and not the view­ers?

  • Giv­en this ‘big busi­ness’, aren’t the TRP rat­ings reflect­ing view­ers’ choic­es? Then why do we just blame the jour­nal­ists and not the view­ers?
    Very right. While there are cas­es I think the media can be in the dri­ver seat (pre­sume that this is what audi­ence wants etc.) in most cas­es they are show­ing it because peo­ple see it. You can blame the TV net­works for putting on the such shows or you can blame the big view­er­ship. But that is a price of free­dom too isnt it? How­ev­er there is also the side — Can you fan the flames and then always not take respon­si­bil­i­ty claim­ing the flame is “fannable” 😉 ?