Must aid be an ethical dilemma?

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti, killing 200,000 people, destroying Port-au-Prince, and leaving more than a million people homeless. Reporters from the United States flew to the scene, and a debate quickly emerged about the role of journalists in such a desperate situation. Doctors who worked as medical correspondents for major news networks took off their press badges and put on their scrubs: CNN’s Sanjay Gupta performed surgery on a girl with a skull fracture; NBC’s Nancy Snyderman worked in a makeshift clinic; ABC’s Richard Besser, encountering a woman who had just given birth in a park, transported her to a tent hospital. Perhaps most prominent was CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who made headlines when he was filmed pulling an injured child to safety on his show, AC360, nine days after the first buildings shook.

Some observers believed that these journalists had made unethical interventions. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times, Bob Steele, a journalism professor and Poynter Institute scholar, said that, when reporters can save a life or stave off significant harm, they should step in to help, but “it’s very hard for an individual who is professionally and emotionally engaged in saving lives to be able to simultaneously step back from the medical work and practice independent journalistic truth-telling.” The source of his unease was a sense that journalism’s role is to report the news, not to offer aid to the people caught up in the middle of a crisis.

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This rule is taught in journalism schools and in newsrooms as though it is black and white, without room for nuance or discussion. Journalists are comfortable referring to our industry as the fourth estate, playing a vital democratic role for the people. Holding truth to power—accountability journalism—is among our top values. But we trip over ourselves when it comes to conversations about whether reporters (especially those working in vulnerable places and dire situations) are allowed to provide aid to the people whose stories we sell.

We tend to say that helping sources is prohibited, asserting that this is a defense against allowing coverage to be influenced. But in reality, such a narrow position ignores the power dynamics inherent in an exchange between a Western journalist, backed by the resources of a news organization, and sources in a place that is struggling. If the goal of journalism is, in part, to confront injustice, should we mitigate our humanity when it bumps up against the dispassionate codes of reporting?

 

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For reporters working outside the US, this question comes up regularly. Consider a radio story about the challenges faced by South Africans 25 years after the fall of Apartheid. Hugh Sykes, a veteran BBC reporter, was on assignment in Soweto, a township in Johannesburg. While recording a segment near a memorial for Hector Pieterson—a 13-year-old boy who in 1976 was shot and killed by police during demonstrations against the use of Afrikaans in schools—Sykes was approached by a child he described as neatly dressed in a school uniform, and polite. “Hello,” Sykes greeted him.

“Can you buy me some bread? I’m hungry,” the child said.

“He told me how much it is,” Sykes tells CJR. He gave the child money and they went their separate ways. Part of their conversation can be heard in a story that aired on BBC’s Newshour. The exchange did not raise concerns with his editors. “He’s not engaging with me as a journalist, he’s engaging with me as a white guy who is likely to have money in his pocket,” Sykes says. “It added to my story. The child helped me say obvious things about poverty in a small place without having to spell it out.”

Sykes first began work as a journalist for the BBC in 1970, and handles ethical dilemmas on a case-by-case basis, he says. But he has some hard and fast rules. On occasion, he has been asked if he would be willing to pay for an interview; the answer is always an emphatic no. For some people, his refusal is a deal-breaker. But most of the time, he has found, they agree to talk anyway.

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Declan Walsh, the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times, says that making judgment calls depends on context. “There’s a presumption that we are principally there to do our job as reporters, and that our primary responsibility is to execute that function,” he explains. “We are not there as aid workers or doctors. That’s what can be difficult sometimes—because you are dealing with people who are extremely vulnerable and fragile. So your instinct as a person, of course, is to reach out and help them.”

But journalists are not always the best people to offer aid. Last October, Walsh wrote a devastating story about how the Saudi-led war in Yemen is starving millions of people to death, or near it. Alongside his piece were several wrenching photos of emaciated children who had been admitted to a hospital. “In that instance, there was no question of us intervening because they were in a hospital and people whose job it was to take care of them were there,” Walsh says.

In 2001, Walsh was in Zambia reporting a story for The Independent about medical debt relief. He met a teenage girl named Caroline who had been hit by a car and suffered a bad fracture to her leg. “Large metal spikes were sticking out of her leg of the kind often used in poor countries to set a broken leg,” Walsh recalls. The country’s national health service was dysfunctional. “Her leg was rotting,” he adds. “We were told that if she did not get some kind of private help urgently, when she did get to the hospital they were going to amputate.”

Walsh wrote about her. A few days later, he and another reporter returned to her home, offered her family money, and brought Caroline to a private clinic. A doctor there said her injuries would require several operations, but that her leg could be saved. Later, in a piece on the ethics of his decision to help, Walsh wrote, “The easiest solution is to elbow aside these niggles and convince oneself that one’s job is to bring the suffering to the attention of the world. It’s what they call ‘professionalism.’ Sometimes, though, it’s hard to believe in. And sometimes it is impossible to look the other way.”

As it turned out, others wanted to help, too. “I was deluged with offers of money or assistance from readers of The Independent,” Walsh tells CJR. In all, readers donated about $30,000; Walsh and his colleagues soon became responsible for monitoring and dispersing the donations. “We had to ultimately send someone from England to Zambia to make sure the money was being spent responsibly,” he adds.

Sykes, on the other hand, bears thoughts of what he might have done, and didn’t. In 2003, when he was on assignment in Baghdad—“the bad days,” he recalls, when it was particularly difficult for reporters to move through the city safely—he met a man named Adnan, who told him about his 10-year-old son. One day, the boy was playing in the family’s garden and, suddenly, Adnan couldn’t hear him. “He went out and found his son lying on the ground, blood pouring through his neck,” Sykes recalls Adnan telling him. The boy had been shot and left paralyzed.

Adnan sent his son to a hospital in Jordan; Sykes produced a story about the family. Three years later, he returned to Baghdad. Adnan, he learned, had died of a heart attack. Sykes was unable to track down his son. “I regretted that I hadn’t been more proactive,” Sykes says. “That I hadn’t actively done anything to try and help other than put his story on the radio.”

 

Journalism in the US brings reporters up against ethical dilemmas, too, but often without the same level of scrutiny. Many local television news stations, for instance, have consumer reporters who solicit tips and story ideas with the stated goal of helping save viewers money. NBC-owned-and-operated television stations display large buttons on their websites that track the number of dollars saved; the investigative team at NBC4 in Washington, DC, uses the tagline, “Working 4 U.”

Does offering aid to the subjects of stories in the US put journalistic autonomy at risk? When Sarah Kliff, a health reporter at Vox, began investigating excessive emergency room medical bills, her ambition was to spur discussion about a policy fix. She’s done that—San Francisco’s board of supervisors has held hearings on hospital billing practices Kliff examined, and two related bills have been introduced in Congress—but her most direct impact has been on patients. “We’ve had a total of $65,000 in medical bills wiped out in the course of the series,” she says.

As Kliff continues to report stories on emergency room billing—and as her sources continue to see their debts relieved—she has had to field a pile-up of submissions from patients seeking her help. It’s difficult to turn people away. But Kliff says she does not make coverage decisions based on who might see their payments reduced. Instead, she tells CJR, she’s looking for “an interesting story that tells a larger story about healthcare billing in America.”

“It does weigh on me, thinking about the power I have in that situation and it speaks to what an unfortunate healthcare system we have,” she adds. Sometimes, if she passes on a story, she suggests that patients reach out to local reporters and their elected officials. “At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is make our health system work a little better by writing about the parts that don’t work—and that’s something that advocates are trying to do as well,” Kliff explains. “There is a fuzziness that doesn’t always get acknowledged, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt conflicted, like we crossed some kind of line. We feel good about the journalism we are doing.”

UPDATE: This story has been updated to correctly identify the governing body of San Francisco. A reference to the views of Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute has been clarified with additional material from the Los Angeles Times.

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Alexandria Neason is CJR's Staff Writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow. Previously, she was a reporter at The Village Voice and covered education for the Teacher Project, a partnership between Columbia Journalism School and Slate. A team she worked on won the 2016 Education Writers Association award for news features. Follow her on Twitter @alexandrianeas.