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SPJ tells Haiti reporters: report the story, don’t become part of it

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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.

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Comments (4)

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Will Smith

January 24, 2010 at 5:29 pm

Seems to me that especially CNN’s Sanjay Gupta is meant here. Sanjay Gupta is regularly criticizd by Schwitzer so one may wonder if he has a bone to pick with Gupta.
Regardless, if I see footage of a man who -by himself- is trying to free a family member from the rubble and pleads with the men behind the camera to help him and they don’t, then I basically think these reporters are vultures and in fact criminals.
Gupta however helps ánd makes a story and I think he is a better man for it. Claiming that reporting is the task you are there fore does not clear one from human and maybe legal responsibilities.
If I sell hotdogs along the riverside and I see a woman fall in who needs rescue, I can not ignore her by claiming that it is my task to sell hotdogs, not to rescue people and no Professor in the food industry will come to my defense by writing an article that a streetvendor should only sell things, not rescue people, because that would “take vending in a different direction.
I am clearly with Gupta’s style of reporting here.

Gary Schwitzer

January 24, 2010 at 6:13 pm

Hmmm.
A. Gupta isn’t even mentioned in this post, and not in the Society of Professional Journalists’ statement either.
B. This entry was about a Society of Professional Journalists’ statement. SPJ wrote it. I didn’t. SPJ, as stated in the blog post, has 10,000 members and is “the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization.” So how is this is about me?
But about your contention that I have a bone to pick with Dr. Gupta, please note that any criticism has been leveled equally against any TV physician-reporter who has reported on him/herself delivering care – including ABC’s Dr. Besser, CBS’ Dr. Ashton and NBC’s Dr. Snyderman. So your charge of an individual bone to pick is unfounded.
Your “man in the rubble” story completely misses the point of the SPJ statement. Did you fail to read the SPJ statement, and this excerpt: “SPJ does not nor would it ever criticize or downplay the humane acts journalists are performing in Haiti.”??? No one has said to the physician-reporters – “Don’t deliver care.” What they’ve said is, “Don’t report on yourself delivering care.” Can’t you see the difference?
Your “riverside hotdog vendor” story is totally irrelevant to the only issue in question in the SPJ statement: journalism ethics.
I went ahead and posted your comment despite how off-the-topic it was, but I’m afraid it didn’t elevate the conversation on the journalism ethics issues that the SPJ raised – because you didn’t address them.