Tough decisions in disaster journalism

(Left) A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers after Monday's tornado. By Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press. (Right) A starving infant lies on the ground in Somalia, with a vulture in the background. By Kevin Carter.

(Left) A child is pulled from the rubble of the Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., and passed along to rescuers after Monday’s tornado. By Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press.
(Right) A starving infant lies on the ground in Somalia, with a vulture in the background. By Kevin Carter.

A friend on Facebook posted about Kevin Carter, a journalist who shot a Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a starving infant in Somalia, was roundly criticized for not helping her, and a year later – deeply scarred by that incident and repeated experiences of shooting wars and disasters – committed suicide. And that made me think of the media’s coverage of the recent tornado that demolished Moore, Okla.

The ethical dilemma between whether to shoot/cover or to jump in and try to prevent tragedy is a constant in the j-biz, always discussed and debated by journalists and bloggers (such as this one about Kevin Carter), and is often something I muse about. It can be extremely traumatizing for journalists, and Poynter even has guidelines for how to cope. Do you remain an impartial, non-involved observer so that you can report tragedies to the rest of the world, or do you put down your pen and camera and become essentially a volunteer worker? Does your presence contribute to changing the circumstances of the event, thereby placing greater moral responsibility on you to help? Where is the line between these jobs and does it have to be absolute? Is the former equally as important as the latter when it comes to events like the famine in Somalia, Hurricane Katrina and the Moore Tornado? Does “duty to rescue” apply to journalists too?

I’ve been reading a fantastic book about war reporting, Breaking News by Martin Fletcher, NBC News bureau chief in Tel Aviv, Israel. He talks about many of the tough choices he’s made in the field, and why he made the decisions he did … many of them in the moment. One particular report he focuses on is a brief three-minute feature CBS asked him to do in Somalia a year before Carter snapped his famous photograph.

One evening in Mogadishu, Tom Brokaw said to me, ‘I want you to do a story on what it’s like to die of starvation. We’ll give you three minutes.’ For us that was feature length.

‘What it’s like to die of starvation?’ a producer asked. ‘How do we do that – interview a doctor?’

‘Not quite,’ I answered. ‘Tom could do that in New York. I have an idea. We’re going to film someone dying.’

As I uttered those words, I couldn’t imagine anything more callous. But I also couldn’t imagine a stronger way to connect to the audience, to say, This is what it’s all about; this murderous civil war and famine aren’t just a mind-numbing welter of statistics … they are people dying.

After Fletcher finished his report (warning: graphic) – during which his team went to a refugee camp, asked a nun for someone on the edge of death from starvation, hauled the “dying bag of skin and bones” in a wheelbarrow to a hut, and set up lights and cameras around her and in her face – he reflected on the value of his report and whether his decision was worth the intrusion into someone’s final moments of life.

I thought, Dignity? The last thing she’ll ever see is a lens stuck in her face like a pig’s snout. I felt like telling Yossi to give it up, but we had a job to do. …

Viewers needed to understand the true human costs of what was going on.

In a nutshell, if Fletcher and his team had turned off their cameras and tried to do everything they could to help the woman survive … would they be doing their viewers a service? If that woman lived, but 12 others died that day in that refugee camp alone and unfilmed (as Fletcher reported was happening daily), would viewers truly understand not only the magnitude of the famine but also its cost in lives on an individual, up close and personal level? Fletcher writes that months after that report, even as the rest of the press was focusing on the hunt for murderous ex-dictator Aidid, humanitarian aid was flooding into the camps and deaths at that particular camp were down to five a week.

Is it worth standing by and watching a woman – or a baby – die if it means your report has a chance of saving hundreds more lives? It’s a nearly impossible choice to make and demonstrates on a much more agonizing level the decisions journalists make every day about what to cover and what to exclude on the local, state, national and global levels.

I thought about Fletcher and his dilemmas and decision-making process as I watched KFOR’s coverage of the destruction left by the tornado that hit Moore on Monday. Especially as I watched aerial footage from a helicopter-mounted camera that hovered almost obsessively over the Plaza Towers elementary school as rescue workers and parents frantically searched for students buried in the rubble.

My instinct as a human being was to be angry at those reporters. Why don’t they get on the ground and pitch in? Why are they being so insensitive to relatives and friends – maybe even parents – who are watching this on television and the Internet? Do people really need to see this? How emotionally devastating must it be for people to watch the search for their own children, siblings, grandchildren, nieces and nephews?

But as someone in the journalism field, half of my mind was occupied by an altogether different group of questions. What is the value of this type of coverage (Oklahoma Governor Thanks Media for Tornado Coverage)? Is aerial coverage better than ground-level coverage (even the New York Times has pondered this)? Is it worth the expense in helicopter fuel? Does aerial coverage interfere too much with the search and rescue process if these rescuers can’t hear shouts for help? The news covered the developing and oncoming tornado itself extensively, saving lives in the process, but should it have backed off in the aftermath?

In short, my conclusion about the second question is that aerial coverage appears to be the best compromise between providing viewers the coverage many of them desperately seek of the ongoing process of search and rescue … and enough distance from the events on the ground so as to not risk capturing up close a moment in which a rescuer pulls a dead child out from under the rubble and carries away the possibly recognizable body. There have been incidents where parents or relatives first learned their child was dead or shot by recognizing him/her on television, including Rachel Scott and Richard Castaldo lying on the lawn outside Columbine High School. Where do you draw the line between informing the public and sparing parents excess torment? I think that’s one reason we saw extensive aerial coverage of the rescue efforts at Plaza Towers, but no on-the-ground photos of dead bodies being pulled from the school – only live children.

The news can’t cover nothing and does its viewers a disservice to not show them the extent of the tornado’s damage on material and human levels. But it has to judge where the line for “better safe than sorry” lies. And the public should try to believe that journalists, including editors and producers, DO agonize over that line. It’s debated on Poynter.org and numerous other journalism sites. Journalists are human too, after all, and don’t cover disasters with spite in their hearts. They cover disasters with heaviness in their hearts.

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