To intervene or not to intervene: Journalistic ethics

in Opinion by
In this Pulitzer-winning photo, taken to accompany Sonia Nazario’s Orphans of Addiction article covering the children of drug-addict parents, a man, Johnny, brushes three-year-old Tamika Triggs’ teeth with her H.I.V. positive mother’s toothbrush. When published, this photo received immense backlash, with readers questioning why neither Nazario nor Williams intervened. (Photo/Clarence Williams)

As the first, and often, last ones on the scene, journalists play a vital role in informing the public about the world they live in. Yet not every reality is as comforting as the one in which readers may live, from the hunger-stricken, genocide-thriving neighborhoods in Africa to the once racism-fueled streets of America. Especially in these types of environments, journalists encounter dilemma-inducing situations: if someone is in danger, should the journalist intervene, thus inserting themselves into the story, or let the event run its course, which might lower someone’s chance of survival. In this grey area, many journalists must make a decision that has a power like no other; should a journalist follow his or her responsibility as a journalist or as a human being?

In 1993, photojournalist Kevin Carter captured the harrowing image of a vulture waiting for an emaciated Sudanese girl to essentially die. Upon being published in The New York Times, “The vulture and the little girl” received immense public backlash, with thousands of upset readers questioning why Carter didn’t do anything to help the clearly in-need little girl.

This situation perfectly encompasses the situation many journalists, especially those covering difficult stories, find themselves in. A journalist’s job entails presenting the story in a straightforward, unbiased manner. While many accomplish this through techniques such as avoiding adjectives, there’s another, less thought-of bias present: human nature. Unless you’re a serial killer, it’s human nature to want to help another in need. But by aiding someone as a journalist, you insert yourself in the story, altering the way something could have happened. There is no right or wrong answer, only understanding both sides of the argument.

In Carter’s case, he handled the situation both as a journalist and as a human being. He let nature run its course, not interfering until he got the right shot, but after capturing the image, Carter chased away the vulture and left the scene. While many criticized his seemingly emotionless response, Carter’s decision to take the image and publish it sparked widespread public support for the famine crisis, helping more than just the one person Carter would have helped by putting his camera down.

One of the most powerful tools journalists have is the ability to bring awareness to a subject by telling the story, something Martin Luther King Jr. lamented when he heard about a Life magazine photojournalist who put his camera down to intervene when he saw sheriff’s deputies manhandling young African American children. “The world doesn’t know this happened because you didn’t photograph it,” King told the photojournalist. “I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining the fray.”

Yet for ABC news photojournalist Fletcher Johnson, deciding to personally take an orphaned boy during the Rwandan genocide crisis to a refugee camp didn’t require much debate. “You would not want to leave that type of place and say, ‘All I did was make pictures,’” Johnson said. 

There exists a fine line between being objective and uncaring when covering a difficult story. While important to stay objective, objectivity shouldn’t be the sole deciding factor when faced with saving someone’s life or covering the story without intervening. Rather than give a definite answer to this dilemma, media researcher Roger Simpson suggests journalists act in order to do the most good, however possible. That may be through helping (only when this choice doesn’t present peril to either party), such as Johnson’s choice in Rwanda, or by covering the story for others to hear about, as King suggested. 

When covering a difficult story, a journalist must consider the decision to intervene from every angle, and ultimately decide to make the choice that will serve the most good. Whether capturing a photo that will spur others into action or turning the camera off for a moment to help another person in need does the most good, only the journalist faced with this situation can truly decide. 

As a senior, Kayla Rubenstein spends her fourth (and heartbreakingly final) year on staff as Online Editor-in-Chief, Business Manager and Social Media Correspondent. Wanting to make the most of her senior year, Kayla serves as the President of Quill and Scroll, Historian of Rho Kappa and Co-Historian of NHS, while also actively participating in EHS and SNHS. Outside of school, Kayla contributes to Mensa’s publications and volunteers with different organizations within her community. An avid reader, Kayla can often be found with her nose in a book when not working on an article for The Patriot Post or developing a project for iPatriot Post.

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