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 8×4 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.

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  • //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” 😉 ?