AJR  Features
From AJR,   December/January 2006

Off the Sidelines   

Many journalists jettisoned their detached-observer status and jumped in to help the suffering victims of Hurricane Katrina. When should reporters intervene? And where is the line between humanitarian assistance and unacceptable activism?

By Rachel Smolkin

A convoy of trucks delivers food to a crowd of starving, frantic people in a Somali village. A famine-relief coordinator turns to you – the reporter – and a photographer. "I'm afraid there'll be a riot if we don't get these trucks unloaded quickly. Could you two please put down your notebook and camera, and help us? It might save a life." What do you do?

In November 2004, G.D. Gearino, a columnist for the News & Observer in Raleigh, presented this scenario during a journalism ethics symposium at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. A group of professionals, myself included, met with journalism professor Edward Wasserman and his students to debate real and hypothetical ethics quandaries.

The students – and as I recall, they were unanimous – looked surprised at such an easy question. Of course they would help. Why wouldn't they, if they could save lives? One enterprising future reporter even proposed telling her cameraman to shoot footage of her handing out food to the needy.

I was appalled. I informed the students that a journalist's job is to bear witness to history, not participate in it. By pitching in to help, the journalists would compromise their objectivity and insert themselves as actors in a situation they should be chronicling as detached observers.

But then Katrina slashed the Gulf Coast, and anarchy gripped New Orleans. Riveting news coverage revealed countless acts of kindness by journalists who handed out food and water to victims, pulled them aboard rescue boats or out of flooded cars, offered them rides to safer ground, lent them cell phones to reassure frantic family members and flagged down doctors and emergency workers to treat them.

These actions humanized reporters and helped give them credibility to challenge the lies and befuddlement of government officials. With a few exceptions, the journalists looked like some of the only responsible adults around.

I began to wonder: Was I wrong, and were the students right?

Does pitching in to help compromise an idealistic notion of "objectivity" but bolster credibility with the public? Is it simply the right thing to do, regardless of the professional ramifications? And is one of our profession's most basic tenets – that journalists shouldn't intervene – needlessly strident, making reporters seem inhuman?

"I listened with growing horror as NPR attacked the officials trying to aid New Orleans victims, taking an outraged moral high ground," James Lange of Pompano Beach, Florida, wrote to National Public Radio. "We all can see that communications is the main problem: Why did NPR not use its satellite phones and other such gear to help the police communicate? Why did NPR not send in food and water to the convention center? Please, please don't tell me that you refused to help because 'it's not our job.'"

In an online column, NPR Ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin shared Lange's comments and those of Mort Cohen of Milwaukee, who called to ask, "Do you ever feel that journalism is an inadequate response to the tragedies you report on?"

"I think this is an issue worth exploring," Dvorkin wrote. "Some in the news business might undoubtedly express astonishment that listeners could be naοve about how journalism sees its obligations. But listeners aren't naοve at all."

The NPR listeners have a point. But if it's OK – even advisable – for journalists to give out food, water or rides after a devastating hurricane, then where's the line between permissible help and unacceptable activism? How do you decide when to shed your observer status and get involved? And do you disclose your participation to readers and viewers, or will that be seen as showboating and only fuel public contempt?

Among journalists and ethicists I interviewed for this story, no one took an absolutist stance that journalists should never help under any circumstances. Some seemed deeply conflicted about when to intervene. Others were perfectly comfortable rendering any assistance possible after the hurricane, noting the suffering was so vast that their small contributions hardly altered the outcome of the story.

One reporter who struggled with the question of intervention was the Washington Post's Anne Hull, who is known for her poignant word portraits and wrote one of the most heartrending stories about Katrina's devastation. Her September 3 piece, "Hitchhiking From Squalor to Anywhere Else," told of Adrienne Picou and her 6-year-old grandson, whom Hull found on an interstate exit ramp. They were "twice homeless: first from the floods and then from the dire conditions of the city Convention Center." Fearing separation, Picou had written near the collar of her grandson's red Spider-Man T-shirt: "Eddie Picou, DOB 10/9/98."

In a telephone conversation and in a subsequent e-mail, Hull both articulated the case against intervention and agonized over that detached role. "I think the human suffering that journalists confronted on Hurricane Katrina was a new experience for many journalists who've not covered wars or foreign countries," she says. "I believe journalists should have an ethical framework to guide them, and in the case of covering catastrophe or hardship, we must try to remember that we are journalists trying to cover a story. That is our role in the world, and if we perform it well, it is an absolutely unique service: helping the world understand something as it happens."

But Hull also felt torn: Adrienne Picou had asked if Hull could take her to Baton Rouge. Hull didn't have a car, but a colleague did. "How can you explain that to somebody, why you can't take them to a shelter?" Hull asks. She told Picou she didn't know when she was going or even where she was sleeping that night.

In Hull's work, intervention would certainly alter the outcome. "The sorts of stories I do are often different than the broader survey stories that involve a [mixture] of official and human reaction. I usually focus on an individual caught up in a situation, and my role is to document how they figure their way out of it and the feelings that accompany them as they do it."

After she interviewed the Picous, she stepped away and called her editor. She wanted to tell him about the story, but she also was troubled. "I'm struggling here," she told him. "Buck me up; give me a talk." And her editor, Bill Hamilton, reminded her, "You're not an aid worker. You're not a rescue worker."

Throughout her stay in New Orleans, Hull gave away water, PowerBars and wet-naps and let countless people use her cell phone. But she feels that during the course of the reporting "when your notebook is still open and you're still gathering facts, you can't give someone a ride... In terms of taking someone out of New Orleans, rescuing them and taking them to a shelter, that seems to go beyond the line of duty for a journalist."

After Hull had said good-bye to the Picous, she was sitting under the interstate typing her story on her laptop when a medic came over to ask directions. "I don't know," she told him. "But see that woman and child over there? She will know, and she needs your help." The medics gave the Picous their first ride in a journey that would wind from a shelter in Northern Louisiana to a cattle ranch in Texas to a new job in Smyrna, Georgia. Once you've completed your reporting, "if you can be of any help in giving assistance, by all means, do it," Hull says.

Scott Gold, the Los Angeles Times' Houston bureau chief, wrote another gripping story from New Orleans. "This city is bleeding," began a front-page September 2 story that ended with Gold crying in his hotel room.

Gold, too, says he's "always been fairly rigid" about intervention and believes journalists derive their credibility in part from their detached-observer status. "I never forgot that ultimately we were there to help the public understand a very turbulent and important and tragic event," he says. "Even under extraordinary circumstances, we have to be very careful to maintain our distance and our independence for the sake of our credibility and the sake of our role in public discourse."

But, he concedes, "I might have softened the edges of that position a bit in New Orleans." Why? "I think the scope of it and the circumstances and the tragedy of it and indeed the sense, particularly in those early days, that it was going to be awhile before help arrived. The things that I was doing, I don't feel like [they] are the kind of things that present great ethical dilemmas."

Gold gave out a little water and offered use of his cell phone. He drove one woman around floodwaters to nearby Charity Hospital. He handed out one 8-ounce bottle of baby formula that his wife had found leftover in their pantry and tucked into a package of supplies. But he felt giving people money or loading evacuees onto boats or planes would have crossed a line. "As much as you may be tempted to do that, you can't," Gold says. "Part of what crosses the line in my mind is the sense that you are seeking to insert yourself into the event and potentially shape it."

Other journalists did participate in rescue missions. "I tried to help and when I wasn't needed I took pictures," freelance photographer Marko Georgiev, who was in New Orleans on assignment for the New York Times, wrote in a piece for the National Press Photographers Association. Georgiev described helping SWAT officers pull trapped Lower 9th Ward residents into a boat as floodwaters rose. "I tried to stay unbiased and to shoot and cover the story the best way possible. I also tried to help as many people as I could."

But Georgiev was haunted by the despair he had witnessed. "We came to take our trophies and left," the New Jersey-based photographer concluded in his piece. "They have to stay. No place to go. This story will become their lives. Or is it the other way around?"

For local journalists, the suffering was inescapable, as were the logistical hurdles. "We didn't have any time to talk about the niceties of ethics; it was just trying to put the damn paper out," says Brian Thevenot, a reporter for New Orleans' Times-Picayune who wrote about his experience for AJR (see "Apocalypse in New Orleans," October/November).

But he did have one very brief ethics exchange with a colleague. The day after the storm, Thevenot and photographer Ted Jackson went to the hardest-hit area, the edge of the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Jackson turned to Thevenot and said he had an ethical question for him: "We may need to rescue people."

"OK," Thevenot replied. "I have no problem with it."

"We were doing our jobs; we were chronicling what we were seeing. But if somebody needed a lift on the boat, we gave it to them," Thevenot says. "It didn't impede my job. I spent 98 percent of my time doing straight journalism and letting other people do the jobs they were there to do."

Thevenot distinguishes between working as a war reporter, when the detached-observer role is paramount, and covering overwhelming suffering in his hometown. "You don't have to pick a side to give somebody a sandwich," he says. "It's not like you're joining either the mayor or the city council... Everybody is on the side of giving someone a sandwich."

The decision to intervene is often made in a matter of seconds, without the luxury of forethought. But ethicists say there is some framework for guiding such choices.

"If journalists becoming a part of the story or an actor in unfolding events gets to be the norm, then the journalistic role is compromised on several levels," says Paul McMasters, the First Amendment ombudsman at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. "One is purely practical. If you are handing out food or engaging in a rescue or that sort of thing, you're not observing; you're not taking notes; you're not seeing the larger picture. Secondly, after a while no matter what your motives, it's going to be interpreted by readers and viewers as grandstanding."

McMasters says that among the factors to consider in deciding whether to intervene is "how natural or instinctive the journalist's impulse is and whether or not there is potential for immediate harm or injury without the journalist's involvement. It is very important that the journalist quickly returns to their professional role as soon as the moment passes." But, he adds, "that's not a very good answer. In the world of journalistic ethics, there are seldom good answers or pat answers."

Michael Josephson, founder and president of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, says the journalist's primary obligation is to act as a human being. "Obviously the more serious it is, if people are in dire straits, the more obligated someone is regardless of who they are to render assistance. The other factor is whether there are others there who can render assistance," he says, noting that simply calling someone over might be sufficient.

"I also think we shouldn't be too finicky about the notion that rendering some simple assistance will compromise objectivity," Josephson adds. "Offering someone a drink of water would be something you'd do if they were in your office." To do otherwise, to withhold simple help in the name of professionalism, "will ultimately discredit the profession in most people's eyes."

Susan E. Tifft, a public policy and journalism professor at Duke University, says standards of detachment help journalists strive for impartiality, but the word "objectivity" may not be the most helpful way to describe the journalist's role. Her students are always shocked to learn that "objectivity" refers to a process of inquiry that requires journalists to publish what they actually find – not what they might prefer to find – and doesn't mean journalists have no opinions of their own.

She says helping during a disaster or life-threatening situation doesn't threaten impartiality, and doing so is absolutely appropriate if it rises organically from the scene.

When NPR Ombudsman Dvorkin posed the helping-out conundrum to newsroom staff, "everybody's first response was, 'No. We don't get involved.' And their second response was, 'Well, maybe sometimes we have to,'" he says. "I think you can get involved as a human being when your own conscience tells you to."

Dvorkin says the students had the right instincts in our Somalia scenario. But he cautions that "there's a difference between being involved in humanitarian relief and being involved as a partisan in something that has more political implications."

What if you're reporting in Gaza, and someone from Hamas asks you to help deliver food to children? "The children are just as much in need of food and comfort as victims of Hurricane Katrina, but who's the instigator of the aid needs to be considered," he says. Hamas could be doing charity work as part of its role as a provider of social services, but the organization also has a strong military and terrorist component. "That has proven to be a problem for some journalists in war zones where the only people providing aid are actually partisans in a conflict," Dvorkin says.

During the ethics seminar, Wasserman steered the discussion but largely refrained from weighing in. While reporting this story, I called to ask what he thought. "The idea that you would not render aid when it's practical and would be effective is monstrous," he told me.

But Wasserman says help shouldn't be given simply as an emotional reaction when it's not really needed. "Are you in a position to do more good by bearing witness to what you're seeing and, you hope, mobilizing the conscience of large numbers of people to intervene than you are by rolling up your sleeves and helping with a rescue?"

What if your actions alter the story? "Harm averted may not be a story," he replies. "You may have just done yourself out of a story. Oh, too bad. You report it as a first-person [account] or you don't report it at all."

If you do help, should you write about it? Should you show it?

Chris Merrifield, a promotions producer for CBS affiliate WWL-TV in New Orleans, was carrying gear for a news crew when he saw a driver who had plunged deep into the floodwaters on Interstate 10. Merrifield rushed into waist-high waters to help the man escape from his car. The dramatic footage captured by the cameraman aired repeatedly on "Inside Edition," MSNBC, CNN and the BBC.

Among journalists and ethicists I talked to, the question of when to reveal aid produced the largest split, with some urging full disclosure and others arguing that would constitute self-aggrandizement and generally should be avoided.

The ethics institute's Josephson recommends that reporters who render aid "be very direct about that in the reporting" as a matter of transparency and discuss their actions with editors. "You do it, and let someone else decide whether it kills the story. You don't let somebody drown while you're conducting an internal debate."

He says viewers and readers will decide whether such actions constitute grandstanding. "It is entirely an issue of motive, and people will assess that," he says. "I saw some instances of that, where it looked like just grandstanding. If you're doing it to make the show more grandiose, that's a misuse of people's misery, and it really is quite shameful. If you're not grandstanding and you take the hit, well, that's unfortunate, but the alternative is you let somebody suffer."

But NPR's Dvorkin feels broadcasting acts of kindness "ends up looking, sounding self-serving and manipulative" and shouldn't be part of the story unless it changes the outcome. "If the reporter has affected the outcome of the story by his or her direct involvement, the reporter has an obligation to reveal that."

Bob Woodruff, an anchor and correspondent for ABC News who arrived in New Orleans the Wednesday after the storm hit, calls the detached-observer ideal "a very ivory tower notion that's not practiced in the field."

"We all helped out," he says. Like many others, Woodruff handed out food and water if people asked for it and assisted in other small ways. But he warns: "Never do it and roll on it with your cameras. By definition, if you need to do it, then your cameraman should need to do it as well... The real ones don't shoot it."

Asked whether showing such acts could help establish credibility with the public, Woodruff muses that "maybe for public relations it ought to happen more." But ultimately, he says, showboating is a greater worry. "If it becomes a matter of course, there would never be a story about the suffering of the people. It would always be about the heroics of the journalist," he says. "Do it out of the goodness of your heart. Do it because you're a human being. If that creates public relations problems where it seems to the outside world that journalists are robotic and machine-like, that may be the price you have to pay. But it seems to me the slippery slope is much greater on the other side" when such acts are broadcast.

John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, also shied away from broadcasting scenes of him and his colleagues dispensing aid. His crew did shoot one instance in which they threw a line from their boat to a man floating on an inflated bed and towed him to safety. "Out here, every boat is a rescue boat, even ours," Roberts reported on September 5.

While he used that incident to illustrate the devastation, other acts of kindness went unreported. On the eastbound ramp of I-10, he and his crew found a woman in her 70s, horribly dirty, suffering and unable to walk. They took her half a mile up the street so she could seek shade under a broken fire truck. "We weren't into grandstanding," he says. "We didn't want to go on the air and crow about what we were doing."

But some other news organizations "did sort of flaunt what they were doing. It led to some heated e-mail about why didn't we use our helicopters to drop food," Roberts says, noting he and his colleagues didn't receive supplies themselves until five days after the hurricane. "I got e-mail asking, 'How could you be so callous and so cruel as to not help?' The fact is that we were helping; we just weren't telling people."

In Roberts' view, "Our job is to report the news. If we help people along the way, that's out of our own sense of compassion." Asked where the line is between being an impartial observer and helping, he replies, "If you're talking about reporting on a war and being a detached observer, I think that's a line that you can't cross. If it comes to human suffering, I think you can."

The Freedom Forum's McMasters believes journalists have done an inadequate job explaining their detached role to the public. "Nobody considers a doctor inhumane who takes a sharp instrument and opens the body of a living human. Nobody thinks they are inhumane because they can engage in that process without getting faint of heart or nauseous," he says. "Journalists step back from the fray to serve humanity on a different level... Yet journalists have been largely incapable of making that point to the American people."

But several journalists interviewed for this story found evidence that Katrina's victims understood they'd come to chronicle their plight – and appreciated that mission.

Peter Slevin, the Washington Post's Chicago bureau chief, went first to Biloxi, Mississippi, and then to New Orleans. He was struck by how rarely people asked for help, even though thousands were lining the expressways.

Perhaps, he ventures, people didn't ask because he had only a notebook and pen and not a truck full of water. Or maybe they didn't ask out of self-respect. Or maybe because they figured reporters were there to report and activists were there to dispense aid. "There were times when people I was interviewing said I should get the word out that conditions were miserable, the politicians were absent and, especially, that no one in authority was providing information to the stranded residents," Slevin wrote in an e-mail after we'd talked. "They understood the role and the potential impact of the media."

CNN producer Jim Spellman had a similar experience. "The thing that people wanted most from us was information," he says. "And that was the scarcest commodity, really. People at the Convention Center would say, 'When is help coming?' And we couldn't answer. I would probably have been more reluctant to answer that question if I didn't know for sure than of giving somebody a bottle of water."

Michael Ainsworth, a photographer for the Dallas Morning News, wrote in the online magazine The Digital Journalist that the "hardest part of the whole experience is being helpless. People came up to us and told their stories or asked us for current information... I think most were just thankful to have someone – anyone – hear their story. I felt their hopelessness and can only hope that the images of their plight helped bring them some relief."

Ainsworth told me he couldn't photograph every family out there, and the suffering was "too huge" for his small actions to dent the misery. His photos – of evacuees arguing as they waited for buses at the Louisiana Superdome, of Cynthia Scott and her young grandchildren stranded on an overpass – humanized their anguish.

For me, the images on television and the newspaper work by journalists such as Ainsworth, Hull and Gold made the agony so much more real than when we had pondered ethics in Wasserman's class that fall morning.

Here's what I wish I had told his students:

Follow your conscience. Your humanity – your ability to empathize with pain and suffering, and your desire to prevent it – does not conflict with your professional standards. Those impulses make you a better journalist, more attuned to the stories you are tasked with telling. If you change an outcome through responsible and necessary intervention because there's no one else around to help, so be it. Tell your bosses, and when it's essential to a story, tell your readers and viewers, too.

Remember, though, that your primary – and unique – role as a journalist is to bear witness. If you decide to act, do so quickly, then get out of the way. Leave the rescue work to first responders and relief workers whenever possible.

The journalists covering Katrina showed compassion by offering water, rides and rescue, but their most enduring service was to expose the suffering of citizens trapped in hellish shelters and on sweltering interstates, and to document the inexcusable government response.

Without journalists fulfilling that essential role, the resources to help on a larger scale might never have arrived.