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The Rules of Engagement

By Roger Simpson | September 1, 2006 | 0 comments

Journalists are bystanders to the world around them, often witnessing people in great distress. When should they put down their cameras and notebooks and help their subjects? Roger Simpson explains when journalists should get involved —and when they shouldn’t.

In his memoir Dispatches from the Edge, CNN’s disaster-chasing correspondent Anderson Cooper describes covering Hurricane Katrina.  On the Gulf Coast, he endured the wind and water, and saw the bodies of those killed by the storm or drowned in the flooding. The tone of his descriptions is primarily that of an observer—a bystander, angered and shocked, but still a bystander.

“None of us [journalists] talks about what we’ve seen,” he writes. “We focus on how to put the story together, which pictures will work, which sound bites to use. I suppose it’s easier that way. Each of us deals with the dead differently. Some don’t look, pretending they’re not there. Others get angry, sickened by what they see.”

David Turnley/CORBIS
Ann Johansson/CORBIS

In his reporting for CNN, Cooper adhered obediently to the journalistic standards of objectivity and non-intervention. If he and his crew offered help to the storm’s victims, he doesn’t say so in his memoir. He does say that another CNN reporter loaned a boat to some New Orleans police officers to help them rescue their families.

But as Cooper’s book makes plain, Katrina did challenge his commitment to journalistic detachment, especially by fueling anger at the authorities who failed to respond quickly after the storm. Cooper writes of how he changed during the crisis: “I’m not shocked anymore by the bodies, the blunders. You can’t stay stunned forever. The anger doesn’t go away, but it settles somewhere behind your heart; it deepens into resolve. I feel connected to what’s around me, no longer just observing.” Though carried out safely within the conventions of journalism, his reporting, and that of many other journalists, powerfully imprinted Katrina’s horrors on the minds of audiences worldwide.

Over the course of his reporting, Cooper appears to have been transformed from a passive bystander to a stakeholder in the story he was covering. The tension between these two identities raises questions that journalists have searched their souls about for generations: When does the reporter put down a notebook to try to change the outcome of a tense situation? Or is it enough simply to describe what others are doing? When should a photographer drop the camera and intervene? When is snapping the picture a way of intervening, rather than just a form of recording? Does the risk of an emotional wound bear on whether the journalist should act or stand by?

Men and women in the news business raise these ethical questions daily, circle around their choices, and typically return to work somewhere short of a confident answer. They struggle in part because their most decent impulses are often at odds with the business of journalism and the “objective” journalistic ideals imparted to them in school and in the newsroom. Many reporters don’t have access to a definition of “journalist” that allows them to be ready to act when needed, while still respecting the obligation of the press to report accurately and fairly on events.

Yet the history of journalism is complex and contains many competing guidelines for when to stand by and when to stand up, suggesting possibilities that many of us have forgotten. My ideal journalists put aside the camera or notebook when there’s a reasonable chance their actions will help others or prevent harm. In the process, they can recognize the symptoms of stress and emotional injury in themselves and others, and they can better convey the emotional dimension of their stories. Getting involved isn’t just good for the journalists and their subjects. It can also be good for journalism and the public.

A thousand bulldozers

“You have the power of a thousand bulldozers,” a New Orleans resident told Anderson Cooper. “I don’t think it’s true, of course,” Cooper later wrote. No two comments could speak more clearly about our confused expectations of journalists and the burden that confusion places on them. The confusion rests in large part on the news industry’s demands that its employees stand aloof from what they cover—an effort to assure audiences of reporters’ fairness and objectivity. The demands have been effective. The “dominant stance of journalism today,” writes Maxwell McCombs, a leading scholar of the social role of journalism, is a “professional detachment that eschews any role” other than observation.

There is another, less noble-sounding, rationale for journalistic detachment: News organizations have unforgiving production needs. Deadlines are critical and failures to meet them are costly. Even in an industry that markets novelty and the unexpected, news processing depends on routines of staffing, production, and presentation. And veteran editors have seen the consequences of some staffers’ zeal to be good Samaritans or activists. Such digressions cost time and money and often don’t yield news. Strictly from a business perspective, journalists’ detachment makes sense.

In recent years, however, detachment and objectivity have come under sharp attack—most powerfully from advocates of “civic” or “public” journalism, who argue that if media outlets want to rebuild their declining audiences and public trust, journalists must actively contribute to community life rather than serve as detached spectators. “As inherent participants in the process, we should do our work in ways that aid in the resolution of public problems by fostering broad citizen engagement,” said W. Davis “Buzz” Merritt Jr., a former editor of The Wichita Eagle and a chief proponent of civic journalism. Honest disclosure of opinions and interests is a better guide to trustworthiness than far less transparent claims of objectivity and detachment, say the supporters of civic journalism.

Civic journalism has tried to reposition reporters as participants in the stories they cover, but I propose another reason to challenge the model of journalistic detachment: its immediate and negative effects on the psychology of the journalist, as well as on the quality of his or her coverage.

A decade ago, it was rare to hear someone in emergency and disaster professions speak of a reporter or television camera operator as a “first responder.” That’s no longer the case. Today journalists are often among the first on scenes of natural and human-made disasters. Reporters and photographers embedded in military units in Iraq, for instance, found it impossible to stay detached from the soldiers they covered, especially when they’ve shared experiences of death and injury.

Although we still don’t have a good measure of emotional trauma among working journalists, a recent study of war correspondents by Anthony Feinstein, a University of Toronto psychiatrist, found that nearly one-third of those he studied suffered symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder. For other journalists, those who work in our hometowns, severe trauma may range from five to ten percent—which is comparable to the population at large—all the way up to the levels found among war reporters.

Exposure to life-threatening situations or witnessing death, injury, and destruction can take its toll on any journalist’s psyche. The effects can range from short-term unease to lasting symptoms, including flashbacks, sleeplessness, heightened anxiety, and avoidance of anything that might serve as a reminder of a traumatic event. Hearing the stories of suffering from direct victims of violence also may cause these symptoms. And these symptoms, in turn, may directly affect the way that news is gathered, perceived, and reported.

Roger Rosenblatt, a veteran journalist, described this effect on fellow journalists after he covered the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Journalists respond to carnage at first with shock and “perhaps a twinge of guilty excitement.” Then they get bogged down in the routine nature of killing. Finally, “embittered, spiteful, and inadequate to their work, they curse out their bosses back home for not according them respect; they hate the people on whom they report. Worst of all, they don’t allow themselves to enter the third stage, in which everything gets sadder and wiser, worse and strangely better.”

In traumatic circumstances, engagement may contribute to the resilience and mental health of news workers, whereas detachment can exacerbate the effects of trauma. Failure to help others in times of distress and disaster is not only an evasion of moral responsibility. For many, guilt will serve to tax their energies and emotional well-being. Denying oneself opportunities for action could contribute to personal alienation, excessive use of drugs and alcohol, and pessimism about life in general. Detachment and a belief in a lack of personal agency in troubling situations feed despair and may affect the way news is reported. When a journalist’s worldview is altered by pessimism, the stories told can reinforce that sense of danger or risk.

In short, there are times when journalists must engage with the stories they cover, for the good of their craft, themselves, and the subjects of their stories. But there are also times when they must step back, allow events to unfold, and do their jobs. Where do we draw those lines? When should journalists intervene and when is it best to keep to the traditional tasks of taking photographs and gathering information? These are questions of concern not just for reporters, but for anyone who wants to understand what they’re seeing, hearing, and reading about the world. Here are some rules of engagement.

Intervene when first on the scene, others can be helped, and you know how to help

When an interior bridge in a Kansas City hotel collapsed, a journalist who reached the scene ahead of emergency workers turned immediately to helping the victims. In this and similar situations—a drowning child, a fire victim who can be rescued— action is not morally optional. The journalist, like any human being, should prevent or minimize harm if it is in her or his capacity to do so.

In disasters such as the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005 and the South Asian earthquakes and tsunami in December of 2004, journalists on the scene witnessed overwhelming evidence of pain, injury, and death, and many were troubled that they could do little to help. Yet journalists did pitch in to help unload vehicles, carry boxes, hand out packages, and listen to accounts of suffering—all examples of critical and morally defensible intervention. When the need is overwhelming and little is being done, small actions may keep the journalist in a moral and emotionally healthy relationship to the event she is covering.

Do not intervene in situations in which you might endanger a life, including your own

There are times when journalists have to trust emergency and public safety personnel to do their jobs, and must recognize that in some situations there may be little they can do to help. A reporter might be able to distract a suicidal person by talking with them, but the wrong word at the wrong time can push a troubled person over the edge. Without training, the journalist can pose a danger to him- or herself, and others.

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, of which I was founding director, advises journalists arriving quickly at a violent scene to first assure their own safety. “It’s not your role to act as professional responder unless someone’s life is in danger,” the Center advises, noting such risks as a perpetrator still being in the area, crumbling buildings, secondary bombs, and chemical or biological contamination. “If you notice a potentially dangerous situation, leave the area immediately. Respect the instructions of law-enforcement officials and other first responders.”

Understand that holding the camera or recording what you see and hear may be the most effective way of intervening

A photographer who has in view soldiers wantonly killing civilians faces an extraordinary ethical dilemma. That was the experience of Ron Haviv, who watched and photographed from a distance as Serb soldiers rousted Muslim civilians from their homes and shot them. The surviving images provided evidence that helped the world understand the character of that war. Had Haviv tried to prevent the killings, he would have faced death himself. The world might never have seen his pictures.

News consumers also have a role in validating the journalist’s contribution. Images and stories from the Gulf Coast after Katrina conveyed the grim reality of a hurricane’s aftermath; as I’ve suggested, the reports both conveyed and fed anger and political resolve. Yet journalists have received little credit for this form of action, subjected often to the stigma of doing too little in a time of crisis. Journalists should take solace in knowing that they provided the truth about an event, and the value of that contribution should be recognized. Those who covered the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine school shootings, and such terrorist events as September 11 have sometimes doubted their efforts, in part because the public did not recognize the value of those contributions.

The emotionally healthy journalist is key to our understanding of the darker aspects of our lives—the violence, the dangers, the fears that stalk our days. The journalist who can step up to prevent harm—whether through physical effort or aided by cameras, recorders, and notepads—will do better journalism and give us a healthier view of our world, perhaps helping to cultivate a wider culture of engagement and belief in the efficacy of help and cooperation.

He or she also will be a healthier person. People who endure suffering and witness violence risk adopting a view of life that emphasizes its dangers over other possibilities. The bystander who witnesses horrors but doesn’t see a personal role in trying to alleviate them will come to see the world as fearsome rather than alive with possibility. If the bystander is a journalist, this may distort coverage and possibly undermine the reader’s or viewer’s understanding of how to take constructive action. Recovery from trauma, it is clear, is eased by regaining a sense of having tried to help.

Many journalists already exemplify this kind of psychological and moral maturity. “You say to yourself, ‘Well, I was only able to help out that one family or that one person,’” Ron Haviv has written, “but that is enough for me right there.”

Fletcher Johnson, a veteran photographer for ABC news, offers a similar perspective. In 1994, he was on assignment to Zaire to photograph refugees from the genocidal nightmare in Rwanda. The dead and dying were everywhere. “How do you deal with that and keep working?” he told an interviewer. “How do you find ways to cope with that, the feeling of helplessness?” Johnson found a boy whose parents had died in the camp, loaded him onto a van, and took him to an orphanage. “You would not want to leave that kind of place and say, ‘All I did was make pictures.’”

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About The Author

Roger Simpson, Ph.D., is a professor of communication at the University of Washington, where he holds the Dart Professorship for Journalism and Trauma, and was the founding director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. He is co-author, with William Coté, of Covering Violence: A Guide to Ethical Reporting about Victims and Trauma (Columbia University Press, 2nd ed., 2006), from which some of the details in this essay are drawn.

  

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