Commentary: Crossing a line between storytelling and helping victims

Just after the Haiti earthquake the medical correspondents for some TV news organizations were filmed treating victims of the disaster, and a minor dustup ensued. CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, was pictured examining a tiny child with head injuries, and other network doctor-journalists were providing care at the same time they were chronicling the staggering misery that has engulfed tens of thousands of Haitians.

Were they there to cover the tragedy or treat the wounded? Are those roles in conflict?

Now, this raises a perennial question that bedevils news people -- to what degree does their work as journalists permit them, or even obligate them, to act in ways that would otherwise seem wrong? The fact is, journalism is fraught with moral ambiguities.

In the 1969 Haskell Wexler film Medium Cool, one of the great media movies, a woman was describing a documentary set on a Pacific island where an H-bomb had been tested, which featured doomed turtles. Disoriented by radiation, they were filmed heading off into the bone-dry interior of the island instead of back into the sea. The woman asked, when the cameraman was done filming, did he reach down and turn the turtles around?

Or would that have made the footage of dying turtles a fraud?

A few years ago, at an ethics conference I hosted at my school, Washington and Lee University, a seasoned newsman offered a hypothetical: Suppose you're covering a relief operation distributing food in the outback of a Third World country, the truck is surrounded by desperate villagers and the head of the convoy tells you you'd better put down your notepad and help hand out supplies or there would be a riot.

At this conference was the ex-managing editor of The New York Times, the late Gerald Boyd, and while some of us had a hard time imagining why the reporter wouldn't help, Boyd took a different tack: Maybe, he said, this one time. But you couldn't let it become a habit.

Why not? Let me confess that when it comes to whether professional ethics trumps basic morality, I'm a skeptic. To me, the person who arrives first at a crash site should render aid, even if she's a journalist, and anyone who can pull a child out of the river should do so, even if it would interfere with the news -- a drowning -- he'd otherwise report.

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