The Role of Journalism and the Decision to Intervene

By Dayton Martindale

While many journalists strive for objectivity, there is also a rich tradition of an advocacy press that has played an integral part in movements for justice, including William Lloyd Garrison's anti-slavery The Liberator.

While many journalists strive for objectivity, there is also a rich tradition of an advocacy press that has played an integral part in movements for justice, including William Lloyd Garrison’s anti-slavery The Liberator.

A few years back, journalist Anne Hull went to Kentucky to write about welfare for the St. Petersburg Times. In the anthology Telling True Stories, she says that she spent three separate one-week spans with the same family.

During the second week, the family’s baby developed a fever, and they didn’t have money for gas to take her to the hospital. Hull and her photographer’s “rental car sat about two hundred feet away,” she writes. “They were looking at it. I could, of course feel the ethical dilemma developing: Should I offer to drive them to the hospital in my car?

She decided not to at first:

I was there reporting a story about living on the edge. If I, an accidental  visitor, solved their problem, then it would not longer be a true story. As a newspaper reporter, changing their situation didn’t seem appropriate.

But, understandably, she didn’t find waiting easy:

I started to think, “Why am I doing this job? This is horrible.” I wanted to throw the notebook down, stop being the reporter, and take care of the baby. The photographer and I decided to wait just fifteen more minutes. The purpose of the story was to ask: What happens when the government money shuts off? What will people do then?

Hull got that story: Before the fifteen minutes were up, the baby’s father pawned a shotgun to pay for gas, and they took the baby to the hospital.

Consider another, similar case, also from Telling True Stories. Writer Sonia Nazario was following a young boy, Enrique, as he attempted to migrate into the United States.

[Enrique] struggled for two weeks in Nuevo Laredo, just south of the United States-Mexico border, to get the money to call Honduras for his mother’s phone number in North Carolina. The piece of paper with the number on it had been stolen from him. He was washing cars, eating once a day, and really struggling. The whole time, I had a cell phone in my pocket. I knew that my    intervention would significantly change the story; I would have had to start all over with another main character. Most important to my decision, though, was that Enrique was not in imminent danger.

Enrique did eventually find a phone, and Nazario wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series for the Los Angeles Times that she later adapted into a bestselling book, Enrique’s Journey.

Neither Hull nor Nazario were available for comment.

In their essays, both journalists say they would have helped had the situation become more dire (and in fact, Nazario says she did help a different boy who was not her main character and whose danger was more “imminent”). But who decides what constitutes a sufficiently dangerous circumstance—and would intervention necessarily ruin the story? These two cases each raise an obvious (though still important) question—should Hull and/or Nazario have intervened? But we can’t answer that without at least attempting to fumble with a larger, deeper question: What is journalism for?

Objectivity and News Outlets

Nazario is up front about her goals in telling Enrique’s story: “In a city like Los Angeles where immigrants are often demonized, humanizing them is an important part of a newspaper’s civic mission.” While she understands the impulse to help,

[Reporters] must weigh the harm to an individual child against the usefulness of witnessing reality and conveying it powerfully to readers. Stories like “Enrique’s Journey” can motivate our readers to think more about the issues and to act on them. As narrative reporters we must aspire to write the most moving stories we can. That is our mandate. It is all we can do.

To me, at least two things stand out in this: first, that this is very much an advocacy framing. There is no appeal to journalistic impartiality, only that writing a certain type of story about a cause (in this case, humanizing immigrants) is actually more useful to that cause than intervening to assist in individual cases. Second, that Nazario limits herself to her trade. Writing “is all we can do,” she says.

I find several issues with this. As Nazario seems to, I think journalism can and should have an advocacy mission. But if so, I believe we should take her injunction to “weigh the [preventable] harm … against the usefulness of witnessing reality and conveying it powerfully to readers” on a case-by-case basis. Perhaps in this case, showing Enrique’s struggle to find a phone is essential to humanizing him for readers. But it’s also possible that looking for a phone doesn’t add much that can’t be found in the rest of the story. In such a case, writing would not be “all we can do”—we can also lend Enrique our phone.

Nazario wrote that had she lent her phone to Enrique, she would have needed to start over with a new subject. But this also isn’t entirely obvious. The story may be a better story if it includes more hardship for Enrique, but, ethically, I don’t think that should be our sole standard. I think it’s at least debatable whether immigrants would be significantly more humanized in a story where Enrique struggled to find a phone than in one where he borrowed one from a reporter. (In fact, imagine that Nazario had offered him her phone, and he had given her a grateful hug—couldn’t that not also humanizing?) In short, I am not convinced that giving Enrique a phone would have conflicted directly with Nazario’s goals for the piece.

But there is still the idea, common among many reporters, that inserting oneself into the story somehow taints it, a view apparently shared by Hull. Hull differentiates newspaper reporting, which “operates under the strictest of codes,” from other types of nonfiction, stating that “firmer boundaries” make newspaper reporters “freer to examine and explore.”

But that code is not etched in stone—it emerged over time, for specific historical reasons. During World War I, historian Deborah Lipstadt explains in Beyond Belief: The American Press and the Coming of the Holocaust, 1933-1945, that many U.S. journalists coordinated directly with the government to promote pro-war propaganda.

This was not terribly unusual in a profession fraught with naked partisanship and “yellow journalism,” but, according to Columbia journalism professor Michael Schudson in Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers, it was a key turning point. The public—and journalists themselves—began to question the supposed facts found in newspapers. The press turned to objectivity—a specific set of journalistic standards that had been around for decades but had not yet become dominant—as a way to restore confidence.

Thus, objectivity was a response to a real problem, but that doesn’t mean it is the only, or even the best response. (In fact, somewhat ironically, Glenn Greenwald and other critics of objective journalism argue it contains an inherent bias toward those in power, and therefore results in pro-war propaganda of the sort it was intended to avoid.)

It may also be an unattainable ideal: Lipstadt writes: “Neither the journalist nor the historian is completely objective. Their values inform their view and understanding of events, and thus influence the creation and interpretation of the historical record.”

But, according to a 1984 article from Stanford journalism professor Theodore Glasser, “the “most important” consequence of objective journalism is that it’s “biased against the very idea of responsibility; the day’s news is viewed as something journalists are compelled to report, not something they are responsible for creating.”

There is a rich legacy of journalism that rejects this notion, from the abolitionist newspapers of the early-to-mid-1800s, which included writers and editors who participated in the Underground Railroad, to George Orwell’s reporting on the Spanish Civil War, in which he participated.

I do not want to dismiss out of hand the notion that the stricter code Hull talks about—while it would have prevented journalists from participating in the Underground Railroad—could also have helped them examine and explore their subject more freely. And I am not saying that intervention is always right, or that Nazario and Hull were necessarily wrong.

But I suspect that this self-imposed code can handicap reporters and deprive them of what could be great stories. Detached and impartial may be the right approach for some stories, but it is only one approach. Other approaches offer their own strengths that can be complementary or in some cases preferable. As Glasser put it, “objective reporting is more of a custom than a principle, more a habit of mind than a standard of performance.” If journalists or readers see objectivity as always preferable, that is because they have been trained to see it as such, not because of  any inherent virtue in the approach.

I do see value in independence—at the magazine I work for, for instance, In These Times, we report a lot on social movements. Yet we generally don’t take pieces written by leaders of organizations about events that they helped organize. Most of the time, that would just amount to free PR, and an outside, critical eye is a useful tool. But we regularly take pieces from people involved in advocacy—pieces on Israel/Palestine, for example, from members of Jewish Voice for Peace. I would argue the intimacy with the subject matter they have gained from being activists often improves their pieces.

Deciding Our Role

Most of the journalism classmates with whom I’ve discussed the Hull and Nazario cases believe that Nazario did the right thing, but think Hull should have driven the baby to the hospital.

Part of this is the perceived imminence of the threat. Hull had been planning to drive if the fever persisted much longer, but many of my journalist friends think she shouldn’t have waited so long to begin with—a feverish baby is no time to tempt fate.

Enrique, on the other hand, while his days looking for a phone were tough, was not quite so close to death. But what constitutes “imminent danger?” Surely there are moral gradations between providing shelter to a fugitive slave on the Underground Railroad and lending a boy a phone, and even if we think the former is obligatory then we must draw a line somewhere. Obviously, it would be impractical, not to mention illegal (although so was the Underground Railroad) for Nazario to fund and organize Enrique’s journey herself.

But while lending Enrique a phone might not have been the difference between life-and-death, it also would have been a very easy way to help someone a great deal, and without significantly altering the story. This is at least potentially a case where abandoning the conception of journalist as fly-on-the-wall would better help us accomplish our goals.

Another critical difference between Hull’s case and Nazario’s: the age and mental state of their subjects. The feverish baby was just a baby, whereas Enrique, while young, was at least rational. Both Hull and Nazario explain the importance of laying down clear ground rules beforehand, explaining to your subjects your role as an observer (if that is the role you choose to take). But to a baby these ground rules mean nothing. Enrique, at least, could understand them and—insofar as a minor can—consent.

True to the spirit of this essay, let me now insert myself into the story. In college, I had been writing a story on Princeton University’s primate labs when news of an abused monkey in a Princeton lab leaked. A friend from PETA (with which I had no formal affiliation) reached out to me, asking if I could write and circulate a petition around campus in response. For a moment I wasn’t sure—I had intended my article to be predominantly third person, and if I started a petition that would inevitably become part of the story.

My reason for wanting to write in the third person was not to adhere to policy. At the alternative weekly student paper where I wrote and edited, we didn’t follow any codes and I had free rein in my writing style. Most of our pieces, including my own, included at least some first-person. However, at that time I thought a third person article would be taken more seriously and granted more respect by primate scientists—and, perhaps, might look nice on a grad school application.

But this friend had been helpful to me in the past, and given the docile state of animal advocacy on campus, I was worried no one else would do anything if I said no. So I ended up circulating a petition, meeting with lab administrators about potential reforms, and putting off the article until some closure was met. One of the administrators proved very receptive to dialogue, but only the most minor of my proposed reforms was even partly adopted.

While this process changed what the article was, it also gave me insight into how advocacy works and how the university thinks about its labs that I would not have gotten otherwise, and that proved useful in my story. The administration hadn’t wanted to talk to me when I was just a journalist; it wasn’t until I sent in the petition that anyone agreed to meet—and even then, I was asked not to include the details of those meetings in the piece.

In the end, I think my own intervention improved that article—and potentially, in some tiny and ludicrously insufficient way, improved lives for the monkeys, rodents and fish of Princeton’s labs, too, which from the start had been my primary goal. Had I not become involved, had I chosen to stick to a specific prestigious or respectable genre of third-person investigative article, I believe I might have been sacrificing the monkeys on the altar of my journalism career. They, like the feverish baby, can’t consent.

Ultimately, my own reporting (on both humans and nonhumans) does come with an advocacy mission, and I still think of myself as an activist. Perhaps starting a petition—let alone civil disobedience—might be too much to ask of reporters. But unlike those actions, subtle contributions like a ride to the hospital or a lent phone need not transform the piece.

Hull writes, “We must stick to the basic framework, telling ourselves: I am here to do a job.” But whether we admit it or not, we, the reporter, are physically there. We are doing a job, yes, but we are also citizens and we have our own thoughts and feelings and our presence both consciously and unconsciously affects our subjects’ behavior. We are thoroughly enmeshed in complex social and ecological relationships. Thus, we have affected the story already, and if we can do vulnerable subjects some small favor, without compromising our independence or diminishing the social utility of our work, then maybe the basic framework is ready for an update.

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