Journalists are trained to be observers; to not get personally invested in their stories. But what if, faced with extreme circumstances, you overstep your boundaries as a reporter and lend a helping hand to those less fortunate? Rhiannon Russell explains why journalists sometimes feel compelled to do more than just write stories and why this advocacy journalism doesn’t always mean sacrificing objectivity.

Journalists are trained to be observers; to not get personally invested in their stories. But what if, faced with extreme circumstances, you overstep your boundaries as a reporter and lend a helping hand to those less fortunate? Rhiannon Russell explains why journalists sometimes feel compelled to do more than just write stories and why this advocacy doesn’t mean sacrificing credibility.

 

It’s one of the oldest rules in the book: Journalists are supposed to be objective observers. We’re not supposed to align ourselves with causes or become too invested in the people we write about.

But what if you’re reporting from a war zone or a nation that’s been hit by natural disaster? Do extreme circumstances permit you to overstep your boundaries as a reporter – at least a little bit?

Brian Stewart did. After he left Ethiopia in the 1980s, where he was covering the famine with Tony Burman for the CBC, he couldn’t get the sight of a little girl he’d met out of his head. She’d been very sick and nearly died. “You don’t know why, but some faces stand out in a crowd,” he says. Stewart paid for the girl, Birhan, and her brothers and sisters to attend school, and has visited her and her family several times over the years.

Now Birhan has finished school and is married with a child of her own. Stewart still sends her family money every year “to give them a safety net,” he says. She came to Canada to visit years ago and he took her to Niagara Falls. “We’ve kept in touch. She calls me Dad,” Stewart says. “She calls my daughter ‘sister.’”

When Sue Montgomery of the Montreal Gazette was reporting from Haiti after the earthquake, the nation was so decimated that Montgomery found herself helping – stitching a man’s wound, feeding another, and helping a woman give birth in one of the medic tents, as she wrote in this recount for J-Source.

There’s a consensus among journalists that this is okay, to an extent, so long as it doesn’t distract you from or take the place of your real job – covering events.

“You have to understand you’re there for a reason,” says Sonia Verma, who reports on foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. “I think that it’s okay to help in certain circumstances, for instance, if someone’s hurt, if someone’s injured, if someone’s in need of help.”

Paul Knox, Ryerson journalism professor and former foreign correspondent for The Globe, agrees. He was in Colombia after a landslide and recalls seeing some young children whose parents had been carried away. “There wasn’t anything I could do about it,” he says.

Occasionally, he’d help by offering aspirin to sick locals or a few dollars, but he never was sidetracked from his work for the cause.

“I never felt the urge to stop being a reporter and start doing this other stuff,” Knox says. “I always felt that being a witness to events…was a constructive thing to be doing.”

Photojournalist Kevin Carter was just that – a witness – when he worked in South Africa and Sudan in the early ‘90s. Carter took the now-legendary photograph of a starving girl collapsed on the ground as a vulture stands poised behind her. He later said that after he took the photo, he chased the bird off and watched the girl struggle. Time reported that Carter then “sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried.”

In 1994, the photo won the Pulitzer Prize. Later that year, Carter committed suicide.

The website for a documentary created about Carter’s life states, “The photograph became famous. Kevin became notorious. It seemed the world was not ready to accept the journalists’ dilemma — whether to be a witness or a saviour.”

This dilemma is ongoing. Being witness to events and documenting them is constructive, but it doesn’t make it any less difficult to acknowledge that your story likely won’t provide the kind of immediate hands-on help people in crisis zones so often need. It’s more probable that these stories contribute to a gradual informing of the global public.

At the Dalton Camp lecture in journalism in 2010, Stephanie Nolen spoke about how difficult it is to come to terms with this. She was in Congo in 2004 and 2008, speaking to women who’d been violently raped.

“I was acutely conscious in trying to write that story that I could do absolutely nothing for these women," The Globe and Mail foreign correspondent said. "They needed food, they needed physical safety, they needed security, they needed medical care, and I had a notebook.” 

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Nolen continued: “They needed a thousand things and I could do nothing for them…The best that I could do for these women in the Congo was the very frail hope that something that I might write might bring a bit of attention to the war and change what they lived…what they still live."

In January, the Toronto Star, with donations from readers, brought a girl, Roya Shams, from Afghanistan to Canada so she could attend school and avoid the death threats she was receiving back home.

Reporter Paul Watson had written about Roya before, and said that in all his years of foreign reporting, he’d never helped — nor felt obliged to help — a subject like he did with Roya.

In a Star editorial by Michael Cooke, Watson spoke about this:

“With me, everywhere in the world where there's trouble, I've always said ‘I can't help you,'” he says. “Or if I feel terrible about their situation, I say ‘I'm so, so sorry, I can't help you.' Journalists don't help directly, we report. It's a principle — we observe, we don't act.

“I've never felt compelled to step out of the reporter's role to help someone this way. This time, with this person, I did,” Watson says. “Roya is an extraordinary young woman, the daughter of a father who fought the same fight Canadians were fighting and dying for. Knowing Roya made me think helping one is better than helping none.”

And Cooke writes that the Star decided to help Roya to continue “our country’s investment in building a better future for Afghans.”

It’s undoubtedly a noble gesture. But it is an interesting gesture for a newspaper to make. Papers (and other form of mainstream media) rarely assume the role of advocate.

“They [the Star] are creating news,” says Knox. “There’s no question.” But, importantly, the paper’s not being dishonest about its decision. As long as they’re being transparent, it’s up to the audience to judge whether that’s that they want from their news outlet,” he says.

Knox also points out the Star’s history of practising what you may call “advocacy journalism” – collecting donations each year for its annual Santa Claus Fund and Fresh Air Fund, and subsequently publishing stories about people in the community who benefit from these donations.

“You could say that’s not a legitimate news story,” Knox said, but he thinks people like reading these types of feel-good stories.

It may not be “hard” journalism, but it still involves meeting people and telling their stories.

On an international scale, it’s important for journalists to continue to see their work as the top priority. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’d condemn journalists for helping the sick or injured or oppressed – Tony Burman says he admires what the Star did with Roya – but the focus should be on reporting.   

“Some people say they get into journalism to change the world,” Verma told a class of journalism students at Ryerson University. “The reason I got into it is because I love to observe the world. Observing can be a very powerful act in itself.” 

 

 

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Birhan had "children." We apologise for the mistake and any confusion it may have caused.