The Committed Observer: Intervening as a Journalist

“Do you ever feel that journalism is an inadequate response to the tragedies you report on?,” wrote listener Mort Cohen to NPR after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans.

Ouch. My heart twinges in response to that questions and tells me that the answer is much more complicated than yes or no. Earlier, I commented on “The Dream Boat,” a story of two reporters who joined refugees on a boat across the Indian Ocean. A pregnant refugee on the boat was in critical condition and though the engineer explained as much in broken English to the Australian border patrol, the Australians refused to help. The reporters continued their silent, undercover reporting, not making any moves to clear up the situation help.

I see both sides. I see the side that urges reporters to intervene, to take the step to prevent refugees from dying at the hands of a coyote “aiding” them across the US-Mexico border or pass out food to the starving to ensure that everyone is able to eat.

At the same time, I see where that help can be misplaced, where by getting involved can put objectivity in jeopardy and when good intentions, like Anthony Bourdain buying food for Haitians, can turn sour in an instant.

I find solace in the commentary of war photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who recently released a memoir, It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War. Addario said, in an interview with NPR,I also felt this massive weight as a photographer – how do I cover this? How do I convey in one frame the misery that I’m seeing? Because then I felt, wow, I really have a responsibility to cover the scene for these people, you know, to make sure that the reader, back at home, of The New York Times will get it.”

For me, intervening can sometimes become a part of the problem. There is no guarantee that your intentions will become action. At the same time, I hardly have an abolitionist stance. There are times when, as Rachel Smolkin wrote in Off the Sidelines, “the suffering [is] so vast that their small contributions hardly [alter] the outcome of the story.”

I think that it is important to consider intervention on a case by case basis and if the public is expected to trust reporters who do not intervene, the reporters must be upfront in their reasoning and justifications. Change can be imposed by intervention and sometimes actions do speak louder than words. But more often than not, in everyday lower risk situations, the objectivity and outsider perspective must be maintained.

As Gil Thelen told the American Press Institute, “the journalist is not removed from community, though at times may stand apart from others so as to view things from a different perspective.”

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The Committed Observer: Intervening as a Journalist

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