About News

Sometimes You Shouldn’t Stay Out of the Story

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama.

In late December, a reporter for the Bend (Oregon) Bulletin who was assigned to report on dangerously cold weather wrote a first-person account of his decision to summon help for a shivering woman living in a tent. He feared she might not survive the night. Compassionate and heroic, is it not?

Apparently not, because he got torn to shreds on Twitter – so much so that the next day he posted that he was taking a break from the “unrelenting hatred” on the platform.

I commend the good Samaritan act and I appreciate whenever someone initiates discussion of good ethical practices in journalism, which is what the reporter’s account did. (It’s also what The Arenblog sometimes tries to do.) But like others, I didn’t care for the piece. At all.

That was not because the reporter chose to get involved in the story he was covering. It was, partly, because of the “Hey, look at me” quality to his decision to go public. And it was, primarily, because he framed his actions as contrary to the journalistic principle to never get involved. “There is a well-established ethical rule among journalists that, no matter how bad things get, you don’t do anything that could impact the story,” he wrote.

No, not really.

Certainly, journalists must avoid involvements that create conflicts of interest or cast questions about their fairness or neutrality. But in matters of immediate life or death, or immediate health and safety, I don’t interpret any creeds of journalism as preventing action by a reporter.

It has happened many times, usually when a natural disaster hits. When Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in 2017, for instance, a local TV reporter doing a live broadcast spotted a truck driver trapped in the cab as it filled with water. She ran to flag down a rescue boat. Also during Harvey, a CNN reporter missed a scheduled live shot because he and his crew ran to save a driver who drove into a flooded ravine moments before the standup. The episode ended with the driver thanking the crew on national live TV.

In his story, the Oregon reporter cited two “horror stories” of journalists supposedly not acting to save a person from harm. One involved an Alabama TV news crew that “sat back” while a Jacksonville man set himself on fire to protest unemployment in America in 1983. But according to an article in the online United Press International archives, the crew from WHMA-TV did try to stop him.

The writer’s second example is famous: A photographer who won a Pulitzer Prize for a 1993 photo of a little girl who collapsed on her way to a food center during the famine and civil war in Sudan. In the background, a vulture waits for her to die. It’s often overlooked that the photojournalist eventually did chase the bird away, and that he couldn’t help the girl because armed soldiers were present to prevent the press from interfering with circumstances. (The photographer reported that the girl was able to resume her path to the center, where her parents had gone to get in line, but her fate after that remains unknown.)

This is not to say there are no concerns or gray areas when reporters debate whether to step out of their roles as uninvolved witnesses. What about situations that aren’t immediately urgent? Should journalists writing about poverty, for instance, offer money to the people they use to humanize their stories? (I have no problem with that, provided the offer comes after the reporting.)

Writing in 2018 about the famine in Yemen, Declan Walsh of The New York Times raised valid questions about whether it’s ethical to single out some people but not others for help, and whether people looking for assistance might embellish their stories to pull a little harder on the hearts and wallets of foreigners with money. He also asked how much long-term good a one-time gift could possibly do.

In some cases, reporter intervention could mean loss of a worthy story. In 2012, photographer Sara Naomi Lewkowicz was documenting an ex-convict’s attempt to return to normal life when one night he began assaulting his live-in girlfriend. Knowing that someone else had called police, Lewkowicz kept shooting the attack rather than trying to stop it. The result was a rare and blunt look at the awfulness of domestic violence. Letting the events happen produced a public service (and the girlfriend let Lewkowicz continue to follow her life).

Deciding when to stop being a hands-off journalist in adverse circumstances isn’t easy. But doing so is certainly not an automatic violation of the rules.

Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.

About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.