A modest proposal to preserve ethical journalism in Haiti: When you're helping, turn the cameras off
In today's super-cynical times, viewers are all too aware of the power which comes from having a news anchor shown helping to rescue a person in peril or advocate aggressively for increased aid during an emergency.
One of CNN anchor Anderson Cooper's signature moments during coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath was his interview with U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, in which he let frustration over the lack of aid he saw firsthand translate into a brutal demolition of her carefully planned talking points.
But others have learned from that example. And now, as the crisis in Haiti continues its merciless grip on the country, many TV outlets have their own reporters-turned relief workers, from newly-hired Good Morning America newsreader Juju Chang handing out medicine to NBC medical correspondent Dr. Nancy Snyderman following a trail blazed by CNN's Sanjay Gupta, providing medical assistance while reporting on the tragedy.
The problem? too much of this looks like stagecraft; a heart-warming display ready for endless re-airing and submission to awards committees. (at left, Gupta performs surgery on a Navy vessel on Jan. 18, helping a girl with shrapnel in her head)
Snyderman resisted that idea during CNN's Reliable Sources show on Sunday, telling host Howard Kurtz that she went to a Catholic charity to do a story and wound up pressed into service as a doctor (why didn't Kurtz just talk to the people who started this trend, CNN's own Gupta and Hope for Haiti Now telethon co-host Cooper?):
"I guess the best thing I could ask of the critics is come here and walk in my shoes for a day and tell me if you would walk by somebody who has a bone sticking out of his arm," she said. "If you would walk by it, then I guess we're just different people."
Officials at the Society of Professional Journalists, the closest thing newshounds have to a professional standards board, felt strongly enough about the issue to warn journalists against becoming part of the stories they are covering, because it might damage their ability to report facts.
"I think it's important for journalists to be cognizant of their roles in disaster coverage,” SPJ President Kevin Smith said. “Advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damage credibility."
Network TV news analyst Andrew Tyndall makes an even more important point on his Web site; experts say that engineering, infrastructure and civil safety issues are most pressing now. They need ways to get the aid already in the country to people safely and quickly -- especially potable water.
But too much coverage of correspondents helping people one-on-one lends the sense that those issues are more important, Tyndall says, and may keep the medical correspondents from doing the kind of quality reporting which could tell the world about those issues.
Which is what leads me to the idea I've suggested in the headline. If journalists feel compelled to throw off their objectivity and pitch in to help out in Haiti, then just turn the off and put the note pads down.
In other words, when you're a relief worker, be a relief worker 100 percent -- don't have your camera crew taking pictures, don't interview anyone, and don't use anything you witness in any news story. When you're done helping deal with the crisis, put your reporter's hat on and rejoin the fray as a journalist.
That means the next time Gupta wants to help a child, he can do it with the cameras off and then cover others stories. Cooper can help Haitians best by telling their stories in news reports, he doesn't have to star in a telethon next to George Clooney and Wyclef Jean raising $57-million for charities he is now supposed to cover to track how they're spending the money he helped raise.
This does two things: It forces journalists think a bit before they jump into a situation, because they will be taking time from their primary reason for being there. It also removes the any appearance of self interest, because no one outside the disaster zone will even know what they did.
I know it's easy for me to sit in an air conditioned office in Florida and suggest such things, while others are risking their lives to tell the story of Haiti's suffering (though I will note that even though I helped someone clean up some debris from their home while covering Katrina in New Orleans, I never wrote about it in the newspaper).
But when it gets to the point that every TV network sends a doctor/reporter to a disaster to help -- and what source wouldn't pour out information to a doctor who helped save their life? -- it is time to encourage journalists to be clear about their roles.
It doesn't mean they have to abandon simple human instincts. The fact is, if all you want to do is help, there are some simple decisions which could remove any ethical questions for anyone.
After I wrote this post, I saw that Gary Schwitzer of the University of Minnesota's School of journalism, had the same idea.