Helping Out  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Letters
From AJR,   February/March 2006

Helping Out   


The author and some of her subjects in "Off the Sidelines" (December 2005/ January 2006) find ethical conflicts where none exists. This arises from a misconception of what Rachel Smolkin calls the "basic tenet" that "journalists shouldn't intervene." Journalists shouldn't be participants in an event in ways that could conflict with reporting it honestly, or that create an appearance that we might have some other agenda besides reporting the truth. We don't ghostwrite for politicians or carry signs in a protest march because those will compromise our independence and jeopardize readers' trust. It is hard to see how handing out a few food cartons to famine victims or giving someone a ride out of New Orleans could in any way affect how a story is written or damage the writer's credibility. I suppose the word "intervening" could apply in both of those categories, but they are not the same thing, and treating them as if they were distorts the ethical questions journalists face on the job.

Ethics don't require ignoring common sense, either for example, on the issue of what "changing an outcome" means. One reporter who covered the Katrina disaster told Ms. Smolkin that he wouldn't give money to evacuees or help load people onto boats or planes because that would have led to "the sense that you are seeking to insert yourself into the event and potentially shape it." Giving a hundred bucks to a victim or pulling a few people out of the water could change the shape of a story as huge and with as many victims as the Katrina disaster? That is ludicrous.

There are cases in which human obligations conflict with professional ones and pose difficult choices. But none of the situations discussed in this article fits that description. Witnessing large-scale terror and misery and remembering them later can be troubling enough. There's no need for journalists to make it more troubling for themselves by having to remember for the rest of their lives that they refused aid to someone they could have helped, just because of a foolish, sanctimonious and illogical notion of what professional ethics require.

Arnold R. Isaacs
Former reporter and editor
Baltimore Sun
Pasadena, Maryland

I had to write about your "Off the Sidelines" article. I've never had much truck with the notion of "objectivity," which implies a detached super-human status unattainable to a mere mortal like me. Now fairness is something else, an acknowledgment of our human biases and frailties that demands our engagement with them in all their visceral messiness so we can acknowledge them in order to strive to be fair, to acknowledge the multiplicity of interests at stake in any event.

That said, distancing from events can itself be a moral failing. Does this mean if we're interviewing someone who then has a heart attack that we shouldn't perform CPR on them? Or if a grief-stricken woman whose children have been killed soaks herself with gasoline and is about to set herself ablaze that we shouldn't grab the lighter out of her hand? I know and know of reporters who have watched such events and not acted, and I consider them somewhat morally repugnant.

On the lighter side, back when I covered courts for the late, great Santa Monica Evening Outlook, I was called out to cover the story of a home that was about to be swept down a Malibu hillside in a mudslide. More than a dozen print, radio and TV journalists were standing down on Pacific Coast Highway, looking up and awaiting the money shot.

I walked up the hill to see what was happening and discovered an elderly couple doing their best to haul their belongings out of the house. I slipped off my suit jacket and tie and pitched in to help. About 20 minutes later, I turned around to see a guy in shorts, T-shirt and a red baseball cap chugging up the hill on a Vespa scooter, with the media gaggle panting eagerly in pursuit. The guy on the Vespa was the star of the then-hottest show on network TV, Larry Hagman of "Dallas."

Hagman joined me in carrying out the heaviest stuff. The heavy lifting complete, Hagman left, followed by the eager gaggle.

I lost nothing by an act of simple humanity. The story I wrote was pretty much the standard Malibu mudslide opus. I didn't mention what I'd done because it wasn't news. It was just one human being decent to other human beings. And yes, I told my editor about it. All he said was, "Good for you."

Richard Brenneman
Berkeley Daily Planet
Berkeley, California

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