Journalists Conflicted Between Ethics, Humanity In Earthquake Aftermath 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.
NPR logo

Journalists Conflicted Between Ethics, Humanity In Earthquake Aftermath

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122812575/122808276" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Journalists Conflicted Between Ethics, Humanity In Earthquake Aftermath

Journalists Conflicted Between Ethics, Humanity In Earthquake Aftermath

Journalists Conflicted Between Ethics, Humanity In Earthquake Aftermath

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/122812575/122808276" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

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:

Today, we're going to spend more time on Haiti, the story that's captured so much of our attention and our concern. Imagine what it's like for people who have friends and family there. In a few minutes we'll 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.

MARTIN: Haiti's 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 it's perhaps most obvious with those who are medically trained such as CNN's chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

SANJAY GUPTA: But just a little short time ago, the doctors did return and they're 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: To talk about this, we've called Washington Post culture critic Philip Kennicott, he's written about this. And also with us is Kelly McBride. She's a professor and the ethics group leader for media at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. That's a group that works to enhance media performance. I welcome you both. Thank you for speaking with us.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: It's good to be here.

KELLY MCBRIDE: Thank you.

MARTIN: 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?

KENNICOTT: Right. I'm 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.

MARTIN: 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 it's a sense that people are more - well, let's just be - it's about race. That's what some people would argue. What do you think is true?

KENNICOTT: And in some horrible way, the images we're 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 we're seeing, and whether they're appropriate to the story or not?

MCBRIDE: 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 what's 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 we're 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 it's appropriate or not. I do think that you raised an important point that we're 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 it's appropriate, what we're seeing, the level of graphic imagery that we're seeing is appropriate to the story or not?

MCBRIDE: For the most part, yes. There's been some images where I've looked at those images and it's 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 there's 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: But I just want to play a short clip. We mentioned, Sanjay Gupta of CNN, but Nancy Snyderman of - Snyderman of NBC who's also a doctor, a medical doctor, is on the scene and has been asked about, you know, what's your job here? What do you think is most primary? Let me just tell you what she said. Here it is.

NANCY SNYDERMAN: 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, I'm more comfortable with knowing I'm trying to do both as well as I can.

MARTIN: What about that? I mean, there's - and again I have to emphasize that you're 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?

MCBRIDE: I think that it's particularly troubling, though, when you have medical professionals going over as journalist, because in addition to their loyalty to their audience, if they're treating patients, they have an obligation to treat that patient with dignity. And I think it's 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 that's what disturbs me most. And you can anticipate that if you are a news organization and you employ a doctor, you know that that's 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: 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?

KENNICOTT: And what we're 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: 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.

KENNICOTT: Thank you.

MCBRIDE: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: 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: We'll tell you about the latest developments just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.