Reporting vs. Becoming the Story

Journalists are sometimes flung into unpredictable environments. How do they decide when to report and when to intervene?

Catherine Porter picked up some cake and toys, and dropped into the Avelus family home just outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. It was her last day in the country, and she just wrapped up reporting on the impact of the devastating earthquake that destroyed vast chunks of Haiti three months earlier. She was on assignment for the Toronto Star to follow up on the aftermath of the 2010 disaster. After writing about how the earthquake impacted then two-year-old Lovely Avelus—who survived after being trapped under rubble for six days—and her family, Porter wanted to surprise Lovely for her third birthday with some exciting treats—one of which included tuition for Lovely and two girls in her compound for two years. Porter made the decision to support Lovely and the others, thinking she was done with reporting on Lovely’s story and Haiti. But when she returned to the Star’s newsroom in Toronto, Porter says her former editor suggested she continue writing about the little girl. She was a columnist, after all, and columnists were allowed to take stands. Porter thought about it and agreed. That day, in April 2010, she wrote about her decision. “It was one kind thing I could do as a human, not as a journalist,” she wrote. Shortly afterward, cheques began pouring in with the mail. Readers wanting to support Lovely and other children in Haiti began sending letters with contributions to the Star

When natural disasters occur, journalists are sent into chaotic environments to report on what happens. In some scenarios, when there are high magnitudes of death and destruction, they are faced with situations that tug at their emotional core. Disaster victims may need food and water, experience life-threatening danger, or lose their homes. These types of scenarios pose ethical quandaries for some journalists who feel compelled to help people who are suffering. Journalists are supposed to be impartial observers and report objectively on what happens. But this maxim has been long debated by media ethicists who question the harm in intervening. When do journalists cross the line and become too involved in a story? How do they decide whether they should intervene or not? And what are the implications of becoming involved?

The traditional ethos of being a detached journalist and an impartial observer has run its course, says Kirk LaPointe, a media ethics professor at the University of British Columbia and a former CBC ombudsman. Nowadays, people want journalists to have connections to what they’re reporting on and to be human, he adds. This is a balancing act for journalists who are required to do their jobs, but also want to assist during tragedy. “The thing that people struggle with most here is, ‘Can I do my job?’ As in, ‘Can I make sure I’m building my website, doing my social media, and creating all this content? Can I do all of that and still be of assistance in the course of a day?’” Helping a person during a disaster is not like helping someone be elected mayor, says Shauna Snow-Capparelli, a journalism and media ethics professor at Mount Royal University, adding that if journalists are in positions to help—and have served the public interest—why wouldn’t they?

In the past, many journalists have chosen to help out disaster victims. In 2017, CNN correspondent Drew Griffin helped rescue a man who accidentally drove into floodwater during Hurricane Harvey in Texas. Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Richard Besser, ABC News’s former chief health and medical editor, helped a woman give birth. CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, performed brain surgery and medically examined disaster victims on camera following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. “Yes, I am a reporter, but a doctor first,” he wrote on Twitter. Cases when journalists become part of stories themselves are problematic, says Connie St Louis, a U.K.-based freelance journalist and former academic, who has written for The Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. When a source is medically treated by a physician-journalist, the independence of the source is challenged, St Louis says. “They have been helped by you, and so they might want to please you, and…they might just tell you anything you want to hear.”

But journalists need to be wary when choosing to intervene in potential sources’ lives during or after a disaster. “You have to be very careful with each situation and assess the situation for your safety and the victims,” says Joe Hight, journalism ethics chair at the University of Central Oklahoma and co-author of Tragedies & Journalists, a guide that helps journalists report on violence. “Arriving at the scene doesn’t make you an emergency responder.” When reporters become involved in stories, questions are raised about their intentions, Hight adds, including if they are intervening for purposes of self-promotion, which can lead to the exploitation of disaster victims. “Journalists can help victims in so many ways by giving precise information and telling stories about what’s going on and where people can donate,” Hight says, adding in some cases, intervening causes further problems.

 

The New York Times‘s Catherine Porter discusses the challenges of balancing reporting with becoming involved in the story following the 2010 Haiti earthquake. (Etye Sarner)  

When Porter decided to help the Avelus family, they experienced problems with neighbours who thought they were making a lot of money when they weren’t. This was one reason, amongst others, that the Avelus family was required to move homes a couple of times. But Porter says she found it difficult deciding when to give the family money and when not to. If you give money for one thing, then why don’t you give money for something else? Porter asks, adding, “I’m not an aid worker. I don’t necessarily know what’s going to be best. It seems kind of haphazard.”

Providing long-term assistance to sources introduces more ethical journalistic dilemmas than short-term intervention, Hight writes in an email. “Discuss possible conflicts with a supervisor or trusted peer before proceeding,” he adds. “This should include possibly removing yourself from the story if you feel strongly compelled to provide continuing help. You must guard against being compromised in your long-term coverage.”

Joe Hight discusses the murky line between compassion and journalistic self-promotion. (Daina Goldfinger/RRJ)

Sometimes western journalists act with different standards when covering disasters in developing nations. “I think that’s a really powerful question when individuals from western countries are making interventions into people’s lives who are much poorer or in countries that are still developing,” St Louis says.

Not all journalists choose to intervene during natural disasters. In some cases, journalists have felt that becoming involved would not have been possible.

Joanna Smith reported on the immediate aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake for the Star with photographer Lucas Oleniuk. While driving along a street in Port-au-Prince, Smith and Oleniuk saw a crowd and instinctively knew something was happening. Oleniuk asked the driver to stop and jumped out of the car. Smith followed, and the two arrived to see a man being dragged down the street by a rope. As about 40 people watched and participated, the man was tortured and beaten with a stick before being set on fire. Smith chose not to get involved because she did not believe that it was a realistic or viable option. “Intervening would not have been possible,” she says. “I was worried about my safety even if we didn’t intervene.” Though she and Oleniuk did not intervene, Smith says it was important for the Star to cover the story. “We were there to witness events and history,” she adds. “Maybe this ends up being evidence in court down the road.”

But there are less volatile situations after disasters that pose little threat to journalists on the ground. Victims may need clean water or a place to charge their phones. These small gestures can go a long way, but can make ethical lines murky for journalists. “If we know somebody is suffering and they have no water, and we can bring them water, then why wouldn’t we?” Snow-Capparelli says. Getting help to people who have lost life will always trump the story, she adds, unless a story will protect from the loss of life. Journalists need to weigh that balance. “And so the network becomes the story—a little bit. But it’s also fulfilling and serving the public,” Snow-Capparelli says. Journalists do not turn their humanity off just because they’re doing a job, and therefore should be able to help the affected community. “I don’t think that makes a journalist unable to cover it again—as long as it is done transparently,” Snow-Capparelli adds.

Looking back at her relationship with the Avelus family, Porter is unsure whether she would become involved in the story quite like that again. “I think it’s really tricky to play the role of both an aid worker and a journalist,” she says. “It took me years to figure out what my lines were with them.” There were times when the Aveluses were hungry or needed healthcare, and it slowly became difficult to mediate when to give the family money, while also covering their story—both as an opinion writer and as a feature writer.

Eight years on, Porter no longer reports on the Avelus family for the Star—she’s now a reporter for The New York Times and—with the Aveluses’ permission—is writing a book about her experience with them, which is scheduled for release in early 2019. She still funds Lovely’s tuition, in addition to five other kids’ in the family, which she started paying once they were old enough to attend school. Porter has returned to Haiti nearly two dozen times, and is now the godmother of Lovely’s cousin Lala, who is named after her daughter Lyla.

“I would say…we’re part of each other’s lives in a pretty meaningful way, and they’re kind of like family at this point, as opposed to a story I wrote about.”