Journalists Conflicted Between Ethics, Humanity In Earthquake Aftermath

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As the stories and images of Haiti's destitution following last week's earthquake fill newspapers and TV screens, many journalists find themselves at odds with one of journalism's basic rules: not to insert one's self into the story. But how does one remain dispassionate in the face of such human suffering? Michel Martin talks with Philip Kennicott of The Washington Post and Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute about the delicate role of a journalist when reporting from a disaster zone.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. My thanks to Lynn Neary for sitting in earlier this week.

Today, were going to spend more time on Haiti, the story thats captured so much of our attention and our concern. Imagine what its like for people who have friends and family there. In a few minutes well speak with two Haitians in America about how they are living through the catastrophe, how they are trying to communicate with loved ones and trying to help from a distance.

But first, we want to focus more on the images and reports coming out of Haiti. In the eight days since the earthquake, many of the images from the area have been extremely graphic: dead bodies lying in the open, people with broken limbs and festering wounds.

Haitis urgent needs have been clearly on display, all of which has confronted the journalists reporting this story with some difficult dilemmas - when to fulfill their traditional role which is to observe and when to help. All journalists confront this dilemma when they are on the scene in the face of disaster. But its perhaps most obvious with those who are medically trained such as CNNs chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Dr. SANJAY GUPTA (Chief Medical Correspondent, CNN): The doctors that were caring for these patients were asked by the United Nations to leave, and we decided to stay and try and take care of these patients who would have otherwise been abandoned. We didnt quite know how this was all going to end, but we know that more patients even came in throughout the night.

But just a little short time ago, the doctors did return and theyre back to taking care of the patients. I give a sign out on what was going on with all these patients. They can go forward with their care for the future. Certainly a lot of discussions are going to come out of this, but this is the most important point for me.

MARTIN: Earlier in the week on this program, my colleagues talked about the question of how graphic is too graphic when it comes to portraying the story of Haiti. Were going to talk more about that, and also we want to talk about some of the ethical issues that arise when a journalist becomes part of the story.

To talk about this, weve called Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott, hes written about this. And also with us is Kelly McBride. Shes a professor and the ethics group leader for media at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. Thats a group that works to enhance media performance. I welcome you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

Mr. PHILIP KENNICOTT (Culture Critic, Washington Post): Its good to be here.

Professor KELLY MCBRIDE (Ethics Group Leader, Poynter Institute): Thank you.

MARTIN: Philip, Im going to start with you just to pick up where my colleagues left off earlier in the week. You wrote a piece for the Washington Post titled Media Offers Full Blunt Hideous Picture of Trauma Caused by Haiti Earthquake. Ill just quote a bit of it.

(Reading) The usual conventions of suggesting rather than displaying trauma seemed to have been punctured, at least for now. Bodies caked in dust and plaster, faces covered in blood, the dead stacked in the streets without sheets to hide them. These are all violations of the unwritten code that death can only be seen in the established etiquette of the mainstream media by analogy or metaphor or discreet substitute.

Can I ask you your opinion of this? Is this a good thing or not a good thing? Is this appropriate or not in your view?

Mr. KENNICOTT: Right. Im actually very glad you asked that, because in that piece I tried to suggest that the standard was changing. But I also think that the standard in this case is changing for the better. Many of the - many of the rules, that etiquette that I mentioned in the piece I think come from ideas that were established because of war, because of some controversial wars in the American society.

And, in fact, I think the media got too far away from being pretty blunt and pretty direct with the images that were showing. And so what I think is happening in Haiti is that the pendulum is moving. The question for me is: Why was it Haiti that got the pendulum to move?

MARTIN: And what do you think the answer to that is? There are those who suggest that race is part of it. That there seems to be less squeamishness about the black form, for whatever reason, that there seems to be whether its a sense that people are more - well, lets just be - its about race. Thats what some people would argue. What do you think is true?

Mr. KENNICOTT: I didnt bring up the issue of race in the piece that I wrote, but I think that people are on to something with that. What I suggested, along with many fairly obvious explanations, things having to do with the Internet and just a more general lower bar. I think that Haiti is, for Americans, such a problematic country that the standard changed, and that the sense of it as a failed state carried over to the people.

And in some horrible way, the images were seeing reflect a different set of standards because these feel to us like a failed people and a failed state.

MARTIN: And, Kelly, what is your perspective on this, and I call you in part because you are, if I could use this term, sort of a traffic cop in a way. I mean you are a teacher, but there are also those who call - or maybe a referee in some ways. People will call you when they think a foul has occurred to just get your opinion of it. What is your view of the kinds of images that were seeing, and whether theyre appropriate to the story or not?

Prof. McBRIDE: Well, theres always been attention in the American media between how we show our own bodies, whether that be the bodies of crime victims or accident victims, here domestically or soldiers in a war, and how we show the bodies of other people, particularly people in the Third World. Theres a geographic distance and a cultural, psychological distance that separates most Americans from the Third World and from the most impoverished nations.

And I think that one of the things that happened with Haiti is that although it is clearly in the Third World, there is - geographically its close to us. And theres a lot of people in the United States whove been to Haiti either on religious missions or medical mission. I mean, theres a fair amount of understanding and the idea that this is our neighbor. And so I think that that also leads to - were creating a new standard.

And so the squeamishness, I think, of the American people in not wanting to look at death and then you - you juxtapose that to the overwhelming need and despair and absolute horror of whats happened in Haiti, and then you layer on top of that the fact that this is our neighbor, that we know these people. We actually do know them and were much closer to them than we were to the tsunami victims in Indonesia or the Chinese victims in the earthquake in China, that I think a new standard has evolved because of that. And I think we feel responsible to see those images.

MARTIN: And can I ask you your opinion, though, whether you think its appropriate or not. I do think that you raised an important point that were talking about the American media here. There are very different standards that attend overseas. And anybody who has watched international media, who has access to it can immediately see that. So do you think its appropriate, what were seeing, the level of graphic imagery that were seeing is appropriate to the story or not?

Prof. McBRIDE: For the most part, yes. Theres been some images where Ive looked at those images and its a horrible invasion of privacy. You know, people in their underwear, sprawled out, dead in piles of bodies. And I think there are some times when theres a callousness to the images that dehumanize the victims. But for the most part, I think the media has an obligation to show the horror of the situation in order to create understanding.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Were speaking with Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute and Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post. Were talking about coverage of the Haiti earthquake.

And, Kelly, I want to wheel around now to this whole question of what is our role as journalists. The whole issue of the doctor-journalist has been particularly highlighted, although I do think it attends to journalists more generally when theres a disaster of such scope.

But I just want to play a short clip. We mentioned, Sanjay Gupta of CNN, but Nancy Snyderman of - Snyderman of NBC whos also a doctor, a medical doctor, is on the scene and has been asked about, you know, whats your job here? What do you think is most primary? Let me just tell you what she said. Here it is.

Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN (Chief Medical Editor, NBC News): What is my job? Where do I make the biggest difference? Or should I try to do both? Do I plug as many holes as I can at the moment, and then do I scramble back to tell my - the stories to six million people? I think at the end of day, Im more comfortable with knowing Im trying to do both as well as I can.

MARTIN: What about that? I mean, theres - and again I have to emphasize that youre on a disaster as a journalist, you are an able-bodied person, presumably you have, you know, water and basic supplies like food that people desperately need. I want to ask first, are more people calling you to ask about whether journalists are behaving appropriately in this case and what do you say? What do you think?

Prof. McBRIDE: Well, yeah. A lot of people are calling to ask. And when people from the media call and ask, theyre concerned with how does these compromise the story? And when citizens call me and ask that same question, theyre concerned with how we can possibly draw a line, that would suggest when its appropriate to help someone in need, when the need is so overwhelming. I think - and you can hear in her voice, her conflicting loyalty.

As a journalist, your loyalty is to your audience. And when youre standing there looking at someone in desperate need, whether they need water and you have a bottle in your backpack, or whether they need medical attention and youre a doctor, its very hard to satisfy that loyalty to your audience and to then - and then to pick up that loyalty again later. So, you do end up - you do end up in this balancing act.

I think that its particularly troubling, though, when you have medical professionals going over as journalist, because in addition to their loyalty to their audience, if theyre treating patients, they have an obligation to treat that patient with dignity. And I think its somewhat exploitive because clearly those patients have no capability of consenting to being part of - to having their medical situation becoming part of a new story. And thats what disturbs me most. And you can anticipate that if you are a news organization and you employ a doctor, you know that thats going to be the conflict. And I think you either need to send that person as a medical person or not send them at all.

MARTIN: And Im going to ask Philip Kennicott to weigh in also on this before we let you both go. We only have a less than a minute left.

Philip, I am interested in your perspective on this as a culture critic and as a person who, in effect, does speak for the audience, as it were. What do you think is appropriate as a journalist, as a person who speaks for the audience?

Mr. KENNICOTT: I think that theres a fairly easy ethical issue here. Turn the camera off. If youre there as a medical professional and you feel, for reasons of humanity, that you have to serve as a medical professional, turn the camera off. Its not that complicated.

And what were seeing and is agonizing about the supposed ethical issue is really an awful sort of self-aggrandizing, cynical and narcissistic presence of the press. I find it actually really repellent.

MARTIN: Thats very, some very tough words. And I think well probably be talking more about this in the days ahead in the wake of this. I thank you both.

Philip Kennicott is the cultural critic for the Washington Post. He joined us from their offices there. Kelly McBride is ethics group leader for media at the Poynter Institute. She joined us from her office in St. Petersburg, Florida. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KENNICOTT: Thank you.

Prof. McBRIDE: Youre welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: Coming up, nearly three decades ago, Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and radio journalist was accused of killing a white Philadelphia police officer. The notorious trial has become one of the longest running political sagas in U.S. legal history.

Unidentified Man: This case will remain in the public eye because it is such compelling story about police death, and also about the criminal justice system irregularities and procedural violation.

MARTIN: Well tell you about the latest developments just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Michel Martin.

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