Rachel Smolkin’s piece on the ethics of covering natural disasters was eye-opening to me. It featured the perspectives of many journalists who, while covering Hurricane Katrina, struggled to balance their morals with codes of journalistic practice.
Smolkin describes that a group of students was once asked whether they would interrupt their reporting of a story to help prevent a riot that could take lives. The students said that they would, and were admonished for this. They were reminded that the role of journalists “is to bear witness to history, not participate in it.”
Personally, I find it appalling that anyone, journalist or not, would choose not to save a life if they had the chance to. It seems ridiculous to me that someone would value their “journalistic integrity” over a human life. Journalism is a job. An important job but still, a job. The fact that casting away defining aspects of what makes us human, like empathy, is expected of journalists is nauseating.
However, I’m not entirely surprised. The fact that students are taught to value “objectivity”, a method that many think will lead to better work produced by these future journalists, above their morals is telling about the society we live in.
Staying detached, and staying “objective” means that reporters may miss out on deeply important parts of a story. Journalists, therefore, typically perpetuate narratives created by those with the most power.
“Bottom-up” journalism, journalism that is practiced by spending time with members of the community and conducting long interviews with those who live there, I would argue, is an equally effective method of storytelling. It’s less efficient than objective storytelling, but it provides a more accurate picture of whatever the situation is.
News sources want content that can appeal to many, and they want that content to be produced quickly. Stories are a product now, and they need to be marketable. However, because of this, the quality of the stories, and the humanity captured within those stories, is weakened.
America’s obsession with money and efficiency has only grown greater over the last century. It is imperative that journalists remember that they are working to serve people, not their employers.