After a week of mounting criticism of the practice of network TV physician-reporters reporting on themselves delivering care in Haiti, today the Society of Professional Journalists – in a rare move – issued a news release using strong language to chastise the networks and reporters. Excerpt:
“I think it’s important for journalists to be cognizant of their roles in disaster coverage,” SPJ President Kevin Smith said. “Advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damage credibility.”
Undoubtedly, journalists walk a fine line to balance their professional responsibilities with their humanity when covering disasters. SPJ does not nor would it ever criticize or downplay the humane acts journalists are performing in Haiti. But news organizations must use caution to avoid blurring the lines between being a participant and being an objective observer.
“No one wants to see human suffering, and reporting on these events can certainly take on a personal dimension. But participating in events, even with the intention of dramatizing the humanity of the situation, takes news reporting in a different direction and places journalists in a situation they should not be in, and that is one of forgoing their roles as informants,” Smith said.
The SPJ says it is “the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry through the daily work of its nearly 10,000 members; works to inspire and educate current and future journalists through professional development; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press through its advocacy efforts.”
The SPJ statement clearly signals that the ethical criticism of the past week’s TV reporting practices is significant and broad-based.