- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

Getting involved

Like many newspapermen of my generation, I did not attend journalism school. I happened into the trade as much by chance as by design, and learned on the job under the tutelage of some very demanding editors.

As a result, I know, there are gaps in my education. I mastered the pyramid style early on, but was mystified when I first heard reporters talking about “nut graphs” some years ago, and have never really warmed to the use of anecdotal leads.

Even so, I was taken aback recently when I read the following in an article from the Christian Science Monitor, whose syndication service we receive:

“JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — It was three school-age siblings, orphaned by AIDS and fending for themselves in rural Swaziland, who were the last straws. They finally made Canadian reporter Stephanie Nolen question the age-old journalistic principle of not giving help to people she encounters while reporting.

“Every morning these kids, whom Ms. Nolen met last year, would put on their school uniforms and stand outside their home, watching other children go to school. They couldn’t follow because they didn’t have money for school fees.

“Years of seeing such situations finally got to Ms. Nolen. During a ‘somewhat sleepless night,’ she argued with herself: ‘I can’t do this, it’s a slippery slope.’ But in the morning she made a beeline for an ATM and withdrew $150, enough for all three to go to school for a year.”

Excuse me? What age-old journalistic principle is this?

Obviously, reporters should not as a rule become participants in the stories they are writing about. They should not, for instance, work in the campaigns of election candidates they are covering.

Similarly, press photographers should not set up their photographs — though we have all heard stories of an unethical cameramen who kept a child’s sneaker in the trunk of his car so it could be poignantly placed in the foreground at the scene of an automobile accident.

But no journalists that I know believe reporters are expected to set aside their basic responsibilities as members of the human race.

Newsmen as vultures?

I remember a popular movie many years ago in which a French TV cameraman happens upon the scene of a fatal auto accident and, instead of helping the victim, reaches for his camera and films him as he dies.

It struck me at the time as sort of a stupid premise, and it still does. Of course the cameraman should have helped the victim instead. Objectivity is all very well, but we are human beings before we are journalists.

The Christian Science Monitor article brought up another incident of recent years that I had just about forgotten.

Recorded in the recent Oscar-nominated documentary, “The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club,” it is the story of a young South African still photographer who in 1993 got the picture of his life.

The shot showed a Sudanese girl apparently near death from one of the region’s too-frequent famines, and a watching vulture nearby, seemingly waiting for her to die.

Mr. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, but committed suicide 16 months later. Justly or otherwise, it was long thought by other journalists that he was haunted by his failure to help the girl.

The St. Petersburg Times in Florida reportedly offered this harsh reproach to Mr. Carter: “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.”

That goes too far in the other direction. The photograph, after all, did as much as anything to mobilize international concern and prompt funding that saved thousands of lives. But why on earth couldn’t Mr. Carter have shot the picture and then helped the girl?

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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