One of journalism’s favorite notions is that we don’t become part of the story. We are supposed to be some sort of object (you know, objective) that doesn’t feel, that stays aloof and writes from an omniscient perch above it all.
It is a lie, and we need to stop repeating it. The first principle of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is “Seek truth and report it.” Here is the truth about journalism: Journalists aren’t objects; we are people. We feel. We have families and emotions. We have moral standards. When we show up for truly personal or potentially volatile interviews or events, we become part of the story and denying that violates our obligation to tell the truth.
But the Society of Professional Journalists denied it this week, somberly cautioning journalists in Haiti: “Report the story, don’t become part of it.” As I have written before, my family became a small part of the Haiti story this month. I will address the ethics of that story shortly. But first I want to write about the underlying ethical principles. I teach ethics in journalism seminars across North America (Ottawa, Canada, and Berkeley, Calif., this month), and I know that journalists sometimes like to reduce ethics to simple do-this-don’t-do-that rules. And ethics often aren’t that simple.
Another principle of the SPJ Code of Ethics is “Act independently.” I believe in that principle. But I don’t think it’s as simple as we sometimes try to make it. Yes, our journalism must remain independent of people in power and of the commercial interests who fund our news organizations. But when did independence morph into aloofness and lack of humanity?
I have known that journalists couldn’t avoid becoming part of the story since I was a fledgling journalist in high school. I had been a varsity runner in the fall for Shenandoah High School’s first cross country team. I also was a part-time sports writer for the Evening Sentinel, covering the Corner Conference, smaller schools in the surrounding area. Before track season began, the sports editor, Chuck Offenburger, got a job at the Des Moines Register and I took over coverage of Shenandoah sports. I planned not to run track. I hadn’t been that good at cross country. I was ready to concentrate on my journalism career and leave athletics behind. But most of the basketball team got caught drinking at state tournament and suspended from sports for a couple months. Few of Shen’s best athletes could run in track meets.
Shen didn’t even have a miler and I could run the mile. So one way or another I was part of the story. Either I wrote about the lack of distance runners and mentioned that in addition to the suspensions, one varsity cross country runner had decided to become a sports writer. Or I ran and figured out how to cover myself as part of the story. At that tender age, I was not yet aware of SPJ (then known as Sigma Delta Chi) or its code of ethics, but I recognized the difficult situation. At that tender age, I also did not budget my time very well. So I went out for track, while covering the track team for the local paper. I earned a varsity letter and two fourth-place ribbons, meriting nothing more than an occasional mention at the end of the story.
In the journalism education that began the next year and in the career that unfolded in nearly four decades since, I learned about the journalistic principle of objectivity. And I grew as a person. And I learned that the notion of objectivity is a fig leaf for journalists who don’t want to deal honestly with our own humanity and don’t want to take personal responsibility for the human impact of our journalism. We’re just doing our jobs. We’re just being objective. Objects can’t be responsible.
Journalism is practiced by flesh-and-blood people with families and pulses. We can and should uphold professional standards such as fairness and accuracy and verification. But when we deny our humanity, we lie to our readers. And sometimes we miss the story. Yes, we should honor the ethical principle of independence, but the SPJ code explaining that principle acknowledges the difficult balance it entails: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” it warns us. Then in the next breath it acknowledges that’s not always possible: “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
As I spent more time working more difficult stories, I recognized that my humanity helped me gain the trust of a character I was interviewing and learn her story in a way an aloof, objective reporter could not. Empathy and understanding became essential interviewing and writing tools. As I noted in an earlier post about Allen Thompson’s riveting account of his quest for the truth about two killings in Rwanda, the heart is a powerful journalistic tool. Allen (whom I had dinner with this week in Ottawa) didn’t inject himself into that story. He was a character in it and he either told the story truthfully or he didn’t. I’m glad he did.
If you tell a story, sometimes you become a part of it. If you write a story about the trauma of sexual abuse (as I have far too many times), you add to that trauma by asking about it and by writing about it (in follow-up interviews, I have been told more than once that the first interview brought nightmares). To pretend you can’t become part of that story is a lie. Even if I tell the story entirely in third person, I am now part of the pain that I write about.
If you write a story about a youth’s suicide and the impact it has on the parents, you become part of that impact. When a distraught mother was wailing during an interview, on her knees practically embracing a large framed portrait of her daughter, the human heart beating inside of me couldn’t remain on the couch with my notebook, waiting objectively to write down the next coherent quote. I had to get up, step across a line that is artificial anyway and put an arm around her, offering a moment of human comfort. I was pretty much at the end of the interview by then, but I stuck around another hour or two, listening and talking sympathetically as a lucky dad to a grieving mom. I called from the road on a phony journalistic premise about a half-hour after I left just to be sure she was OK (as OK as a grieving mom can be). I knew she was when she asked, “You’re checking up on me, aren’t you?” She assured me her husband had locked up all the pills and potential weapons. I didn’t call again, but I still worried.
As I’ve written before, my niece Mandy Poulter and her husband Matt had completed adoption procedures for an orphan from Haiti, Maya Esther, when the earthquake hit. When I pitched the story to colleagues in other news organizations, I raised the possibility of Matt accompanying their crews to Haiti, if that didn’t cross their ethical boundaries. I recognized from the first that this story could present ethical challenges.
No one bought my pitch, but my son Mike, once a U.S. senator’s communications director, tipped a Nightline producer to the situation. ABC jumped on the story and Robin Roberts became part of Maya’s story. Using Matt’s directions, she found the orphanage and found Maya, calling Mandy back home in Pella, Iowa, as ABC captured Mandy’s joy on a Skype connection. On a live Good Morning America interview the next morning, Roberts asked Mandy and Matt how they planned to bring Maya home and Mandy said off the cuff that she hoped Roberts could bring Maya back to the United States with her.
Well, Roberts was clearly touched by Maya’s story and ABC recognized the value of being able to tell a happy story among all the heartbreaking coverage of Haiti. And clearly, Roberts and her ABC colleagues have beating hearts and human empathy, too. They wanted to see Maya come home to Iowa, not just for the great story, but because all the agony of Haiti was weighing on them as moms and dads and brothers and sisters who could imagine their own families dealing with such a catastrophe.
So when the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince said they had Maya’s visa ready, Mandy and Matt were ready to fly to Haiti to bring her home. But getting into Haiti is no easy trick now, so ABC helped. Mandy and Matt flew to the Dominican Republic on their own dime. From there, they flew into Haiti on one of four daily helicopter flights ABC makes to bring supplies to its news crews. ABC also supplied the vehicle (sorry, no rental agencies working in Haiti right now) that Mandy and Matt used to get to the orphanage and to take Maya and some other children to the U.S. Embassy and finally to the airport. (In addition to bringing Maya home, they were able to bring back four more orphans being adopted by other Pella couples.) And yes, with ABC providing the vehicles, ABC told the whole story.
Then Mandy, Matt and the children flew to Florida on a military cargo plane evacuating Americans. And Matt’s employer, Pella Corp., maker of Pella Windows, flew them home on a corporate jet. It was a happy story not just for our family, and ABC milked it enthusiastically (and is not done; Roberts said she’d visit them in Pella sometime and I’m sure we’ll see that on GMA).
Yes, I do. The SPJ code says to “refuse” free travel. But it does not say not to give free travel. I have provided transportation (and picked up the tab for meals) for people I was writing about.
When I was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, a victim of sexual assault contacted me, wanting to reach a rape victim I had written about. They had both been attacked by the same man. One lived in a small Iowa town, one in Omaha. They wanted to talk to each other. I drove the Omaha woman to the Iowa town. They talked with each other for a while, then invited me into the conversation. I got a good story out of it. I’m sure that’s not the only time I provided transportation for a source.
In our exchange of tweets, Taylor agreed that ABC’s involvement in Maya’s story was ethical: “If ABC was going there anyway, then it’s cool. And given this circumstance, they made more of a difference than just reporting.”
Of course, my personal involvement may taint my judgment and my credibility on this issue, but I don’t think ABC’s involvement with Maya’s rescue from Haiti was unethical. The only transportation ABC provided was two seats on a helicopter that was going to Haiti anyway and ground transportation in a chaotic situation where no other options were available. I cannot liken the ride on an ABC helicopter in an emergency situation to NBC’s flying David Goldman and his son home from Brazil while covering Goldman’s international custody battle. SPJ criticized NBC’s involvement in that story (rightly, in my view).
The SPJ code says: “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.” ABC was not trading favors for information and they were not bidding for Mandy and Matt’s story. They found a little girl, provided a helicopter ride and an SUV ride that helped reunite her with her legal parents and they disclosed their involvement in the story. Perhaps they danced up to an ethical line, but their full disclosure kept them on the right side of it.
I should note here that journalists and journalism organizations have a long tradition of involvement in humanitarian efforts. Holiday seasons find many news organizations promoting collections of money, toys, coats or other donations for the needy. Early in my journalism career, the Des Moines Register played a key role in a campaign to collect relief supplies for refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia. Reporter Bill Simbro accompanied a flight delivering the supplies to refugee camps in Thailand. As a young assistant city editor, I took Simbro’s stories by dictation over a horrible international phone line.
And we get involved in less important stories for promotional reasons. The Register promotes RAGBRAI every year and Gazette Communications sponsors local events that our journalists cover.
Most of the journalistic debate relating to ethics in Haiti centers on doctor-journalists practicing medicine and reporting on their work and the work of other health professionals. The debate resulted in the SPJ press release I mentioned earlier, in which President Kevin Smith said, “Advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damage credibility.”
The press release continued:
Undoubtedly, journalists walk a fine line to balance their professional responsibilities with their humanity when covering disasters. SPJ does not nor would it ever criticize or downplay the humane acts journalists are performing in Haiti. But news organizations must use caution to avoid blurring the lines between being a participant and being an objective observer.
“No one wants to see human suffering, and reporting on these events can certainly take on a personal dimension. But participating in events, even with the intention of dramatizing the humanity of the situation, takes news reporting in a different direction and places journalists in a situation they should not be in, and that is one of forgoing their roles as informants,” Smith said.
Jeff Jarvis, one of my favorite commentators on journalism, ripped into SPJ (this is just a sampling of his critical tweets):
Who the hell is the Society of Professional Journalists to tell reporters how to behave in Haiti? What gall.
SPJ: Don’t cry. And for God’s sake, (this mean’s you, CNN’s doctor), don’t cure anyone. How tasteless.
Tyler Dukes defended SPJ (and articulated the position much better than SPJ did) and criticized Jarvis.
While I don’t embrace the promotional tone of some of the doctors’ TV reports, I regarded the SPJ statement as aloof and pompous, giving lip service to the fact that journalists in Haiti operate amid suffering beyond comprehension but insisting that human compassion in a catastrophe should not trump treasured notions about journalism. The statement reflects a view that values rules over judgment. It reflects an ignorance of the organization’s own ethics code (which does not mention objectivity). It ignores the fact that journalists inject themselves into the Haiti story when they land there. Their presence there and their skill in finding and telling stories mobilizes government and charity. Their work also takes up resources and time that could otherwise be devoted to relief efforts. If you want to stay out of the story, don’t go.
And if you send doctors to cover the story as journalists, remember that journalism ethics are not their only ethical code. Like that slow kid who couldn’t write about a shortage of distance runners when he was one of them, a doctor in Haiti can’t and shouldn’t resist joining the race to save lives.