How involved reporters should become in a story is one of journalism's age-old ethical dilemmas. But the question was anything but hypothetical in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Rachel Smolkin, managing editor of the American Journalism Review, describes to Brooke how some major journalists reassessed their codes of conduct in light of what they experienced then.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: In the second part of AJR's coverage, AJR managing editor Rachel Smolkin tackled one of the more controversial pillars of journalistic ethics: whether to get involved in the story you're covering. The hypothetical scenario goes like this. One small action could save a life. Do you put down your notebook or camera to help? AJR's Rachel Smolkin joins us now. Rachel, welcome to the show.
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So you start your article with a classroom discussion you engaged in back in 2004 on this very subject, and at that time you thought this was a complicated question with a very simple answer.
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: The students at the university thought this was very easy, and they said, "Of course, we would do this. Of course, we would help. What's the problem?"
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: But you didn't think so.
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: I thought it was very easy on the other side. I said, "No, you absolutely can't help." I understood their compassion, and I applauded that, but I said, "When you're a journalist, you can't get involved that way. Your job is to bear witness to history, to chronicle the situation, not to participate in it. And if you do participate, you'll be compromising your role as an objective and detached reporter, which is paramount."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So let's unpack this in the wake of Katrina. You spoke with a few print journalists who wrote very moving pieces about being in New Orleans and you asked them what had happened in the background while they were reporting those stories. What did you learn?
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Some of them felt very deeply conflicted over this issue. Ann Hull, who's a wonderful writer at the Washington Post, faced this question and really agonized over it and came down feeling that she really couldn't participate, although ended up finding a way to help a family without direct participation. Other journalists I talked to didn't feel conflicted at all. They said the suffering out there during Katrina was so deep and so vast that anything they did to help, giving someone a glass of water, for example, or letting them use a cell phone, these actions were so small that they in no way were going to impact the larger story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: This isn't just a discussion for journalistic locker rooms. A lot of listeners wrote to NPR asking what reporters were doing to help, and they wanted them to. What was the response from NPR's ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin?
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: What he told me when we talked for the article is he had discussed this very issue with a number of people in NPR's newsroom, and their first reaction was very much like mine when I had talked to the students. They said, "No, we don't help. We don't get involved." And then they thought about it and said, "Well, maybe sometimes we have to."
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: And Dvorkin also spoke about how New Orleans might call for a different response, a more active one, maybe, because all the participants were on the same side. For instance, in Gaza, if Hamas asked a reporter to hand out food aid that it was supplying to hungry Palestinian children, well, that aid comes with some PR baggage. In this case, there wasn't that consideration. Is that something that journalists thought about?
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Very much so. And Iraq was another example that came up several times. Brian Thevenot, who I believe you're also talking to, is a reporter for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, and he made the observation in this case you don't have to pick sides. You're not on the side of the Mayor or the City Council. You're just on the side of giving someone a sandwich.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: You spoke to Michael Josephson of the Joseph and Edna Institute of Ethics in Los Angeles, and he said a journalist's primary obligation is to act as a human being and that, in fact, if you don't, it will, and I quote him, "ultimately discredit the profession in most people's eyes."
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Journalists and ethicists would say to me, "You're a human being first." And I thought that was a very interesting distinction, this notion of you're a human being or a journalist. When I got to my conclusion in the article and essentially said that I hadn't really told the students the right thing, I would like to go back and revise and extend my remarks, I said you really can't separate it out that way. Your humanity is something that you bring to the journalism. It's not something that's separate from the journalism.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: I'm not sure whether being a journalist and being a human being are necessarily the same thing all the time if you have to occasionally apply an ethical calculus. Since you seem to have done a 180 on this issue, [LAUGHS] I want you to turn around and explain why is it that journalists should try not to get involved?
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Well, I don't think I've quite done a 180. Maybe I'm about at 90 degrees - [OVERTALK]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: [LAUGHS]
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: - different. As Paul McMasters, one of the ethicists I talked to, said to me, "If you're helping people, then you're not taking notes, you're not observing the scene, you're not thinking about how to craft your story. You're not fulfilling your job that you're there to do." The second issue that goes into this is the question of grandstanding. When you help somebody, there instantly becomes this question of are you helping them because you're pure of heart or are you helping them because you think it makes you look good on TV?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: So it sounds like amid all of the real damage that Katrina did to the region, it did a great deal of damage to what was once a pretty durable journalistic principle.
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Well, I think you should not go to an event thinking, "I'm going to pitch in and do everything I can to help out." And if that is your mindset, you shouldn't be a reporter. You should be an activist. That's what I told the students a year ago, and that's what I still believe. But I think that you have to follow your conscience in these settings. If in good conscience you can't stand by and watch someone have something terrible happen to them right in front of you, then you should intervene. If that alters the outcome of a story, so be it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: All right. Rachel, thank you very much.
RACHEL SMOLKIN:: Thank you very much for your time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Rachel Smolkin is the managing editor of the American Journalism Review. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]