As journalists, we know better than to get involved in a story we are covering. But what does that mean, exactly?
Some reporters will say not getting involved means you should always be totally detached — an observer, never a participant.
Yes, reporters should be impartial. They shouldn’t take sides. They should avoid the appearance of conflict of interest.
Yet there’s a difference between impartiality and refusing to get involved.
Journalists faced that question in their coverage of Hurricane Katrina. In the end, many reporters found themselves siding with the victims.
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s preferable to stony detachment. I’m in favor of showing some humanity, and opposed to getting in the way of those whose real job is to give help.
Let me qualify that. A certain amount of badgering is justifiable and necessary. If aid officials are going to have news conferences to tell us their side of things — and they should; we’d insist on it if they didn’t — part of their obligation is to be accountable to their critics.
The media are a conduit for those criticisms. In serving as the public’s representative, asking the tough questions, reporters should be impartial. But asking those questions also makes them a part of the story. Involvement is unavoidable. And it’s not taking sides to ask the questions that need to be answered.
Getting involved, like most ethical questions, is a matter of degree.
The easiest ethical decision is to avoid covering an organization or an activity in which you — or a spouse, significant other or close friend — have a personal stake or are a regular participant.
But what if it’s your hometown that’s being destroyed? Certainly, you have a personal stake in that story.
And what if you are covering a developing story and find yourself in a position to prevent injury or death?
Doesn’t your mere presence as a chronicler of the event change the event itself? Would the story be different if you weren’t there — and isn’t that a kind of involvement?
Hurricane Katrina was a story in which many reporters decided to get involved. Maybe they couldn’t help themselves.
They broke down and cried on the air. They asked angry questions, showing more than the expected journalistic aggressiveness, going beyond assertiveness to emotional anger. And sometimes they did more.
NBC’s Kerry Sanders gave food to a very ill 91-year-old man on the floor of the triage center at New Orleans International Airport. Sanders slept at the airport and the next morning reported that people near him had died during the night.
Chris Merrifield, a promotions producer for WWL-TV in New Orleans, waded into chest-deep water to pull a driver through the window of his sinking car.
The station’s assistant news director, Chris Slaughter, told USA Today: “The kid just reacted. We’re proud of what he did. I would hope all of our people would do something like that rather than let someone drown.”
So where, exactly, is it written that reporters should not get involved? It may be one of those things we believe to be so obvious that it doesn’t need to be spelled out.
It’s not specific in the SPJ Code of Ethics, although some code language comes close:
“Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”
“Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting.”
“Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
“Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
But the Code of Ethics also reminds us to “minimize harm. … Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”
Sometimes showing that respect comes in the gathering of news, and sometimes it may involve minimizing the harm in the actual unfolding of the news — right there, on the spot.
The Code also says, “Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.” That could be expanded to say “affected adversely by events.”
The question of appropriate involvement, if involvement is ever appropriate, is another of those fine-line ethical issues.
It’s more modest and thus nobler to help quietly and behind the scenes than to do it with cameras rolling.
But all of what happened in the Katrina disaster, in New Orleans and elsewhere, was an important part of this huge and historic story, including the media’s anger and compassion.
Fred Brown, SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.