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?

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