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 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:
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.
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