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Cover or Help?

Cover or Help?

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Published by: clemwork on Oct 20, 2010
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10/20/2010

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 Jessica CosgroveCovering or helping reportEthics and Trends10/13/2010Imagine being in the middle of a disaster the world has tilted off itsaxis and the chaos is immense; whether it is the burning steel and metalfalling from the skies in New York City or standing in the ruins a Port AuPrince, Haiti interviewing earthquake victims. There is a question thatplagues every journalists mind in a disaster situation, should I help? Should Ihelp the woman and her baby, which desperately need it? What do I do, do Istand back and be the observer a reporter is trained to be or do I allow, myvery human, emotions to come into play and help? This is an ethical dilemma that plagues the journalism community as awhole. TheSociety of Professional Journalistshas a code of ethics taughthere at the University of Montana and in other Journalism schools around thecountry. “TheSPJ Code of Ethicsurges journalists to act independently byavoiding bidding for news and by avoiding conflicts of interest. The Code alsoadvises journalists to ‘disclose unavoidable conflicts’ and to ‘clarify andexplain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalisticconduct.’ SPJ upholds these ethical guidelines and is obligated to speak onpractices of journalists and the news media. Even in crises, journalists mustperform their jobs ethically (SPJ, Cautions Journalists).”
 
What does the SPJ code of Ethics mean exactly? Does this mean journalists can’t help disaster victims because they need to keep distancefrom the story? Or are the codes of ethics mere guideline where the journalist can morally decide what to do?SPJ President Kevin Smith tries to answer questions like the one posedabove. He believes that, “it’s important for journalists to be cognizant of their roles in disaster coverage. Advocacy, self promotion, offering a favorfor news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating newsevents for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into
 
question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damagecredibility (SPJ, Cautions Journalists)."If this is true and the job of a journalist is to only report, and not tohelp then what should this journalist do when faced with somebody in needof desperate help, and they are the only ones around to give them aid? Theanswer is a moral one.Bob Steele, an ethics expert for thePoynter Institute  and journalism professor at DePauw University said a journalist has a moralobligation to help those people in need if they are the only ones available todo so, but he also adds that journalists first duty “is to tell compelling storiesthat reflect the reality of the moment (Rogers, When Should)."Veteran journalists from all over have had to face these issues. AndrewCawthorne of the National Reuters Foundation found it interesting to see how journalists handled the question of how to help. “A few threw themselvesinto the relief effort, helping transport the wounded to medical posts, doingsome basic first aid, or trying to find missing parents of children. Othershauled their consciences through by doing 'one good turn' each day. Somestuck just to their trade, figuring they did not have the skills or calling to dowhat the many professional medics, soldiers and relief workers were therefor.”An example of a reporter helping during a disaster, specifically theearthquake in Haiti isCNN's Sanjay Gupta he is a “neurosurgeon, tended to a15-day-old baby with a head laceration, and operated on a 12-year-old girlwith a skull fracture.” Yet Gupta is a trained doctor, but when asked aboutthe ethical ramifications of his choice to help and report Gupta said, “Manyhave asked: of course, if needed, I will help people with my neurosurgicalskills. Yes, I am a reporter, but a doctor first (Rogers, When Should).”Guptaand several other journalists, who are also doctors, CBS' Jennifer Ashton,NBC's Nancy Snyderman and ABC's Richard Besser, have a huge moral andprofessional dilemma on their hands: what should come first for them, shouldthey choose the doctor side, as Gupta does, or should they choose the stoicobserver side?
 
“These are challenging, complex ethical issues at the intersection of professional and personal values. And in some cases it's a furthercomplicated because there are multiple professional values at play, as when journalists are also physicians," Dan Steele said. “One of the reasons thatthese reporters are on the scene is to scrutinize and shine a light on issuesand events in a way in which problems are highlighted. I don’t think it'spossible for these journalists who are doctors to be independentlyscrutinizing and shining light if they are also part of the story (Rogers, WhenShould).”Some, like Dan Steele and Kevin Smith believe a journalist should notbecome part of the story. Journalists should only stay back and observe. Afamous example of this practice can be found in the actions of South Africanphotographer Kevin Carterwho snapped a heart wrenching photo of a littleSudanese girl, emaciated and starving, collapsed on the ground with avulture hovering nearby. He took the picture, which won him a Pulitzer Prize,and then he walked away. Nobody knows what happened to the little girl,but Carter committed suicide soon after winning his Pulitzer Prize. It is hardto say what anybody else would have done in the same situation, andnobody knows for sure if Carter committed suicide because of guilt over thatphoto or for other reasons. This issue becomes even greyer when one considers journalists arenow considered to be first responders at a disaster scene arriving before orimmediately after police, fire fighters, and paramedics.Dr. Frank Ochbergsaid, "Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are equipped and trainedfor emergency intervention. When journalists are first responders, they facedifficult decisions, the potential of physical danger and emotional risk - toothers and themselves (Hight, Tragedies and Journalists)." This pull between covering a disaster to the best of the journalist’sabilities and the very human reaction of wanting to help is something every journalist must come to terms with. Journalists such as Dan Steele and Kevin

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