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‘Tragedy Porn’ and the Complicated Work of Reporting on Violence


KRAKOW — In her 2010 book The Crisis Caravan, Linda Polman, a Dutch freelance journalist, explored the ethical dilemmas of reporting on human rights issues. How can a journalist — specifically, an outsider journalist — approach a foreign humanitarian crisis responsibly? It’s not easy, Polman concludes, and many outlets don’t do it well (or at all, but that’s a different story).

Polman described a range of challenges for the contemporary media, from how journalists cover human rights without kowtowing to aid organizations to how they tell stories of crisis without focusing on the most extreme poles of a situation.

In a discussion based on Polman’s book led by Andie Tucher, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, FASPE Journalism fellows debated the philosophical and professional imperatives involved with journalism and aid work. In their relationship to aid workers, journalists often “become implicated in complicated ways,” Tucher said.

Polman put it more bluntly in her book, writing that journalists tend to become disciples of aid workers, accepting free flights, translators and, more egregiously, unscreened information from organizations in exchange for coverage.

Polman also wrote unmercifully about aid organizations: “Without violence and devastation, no aid. And the more ghastly the violence and the more complete the devastation the more comprehensive the aid. The logic of the humanitarian era comes home to me with mounting force.” This could hold for media coverage as well: The journalistic urge to rush to the fire, to the flashing lights, to seek out the most obvious story and then leave as quickly as possible.

Tucher presented the class with a photo to debate. The photo, presumably of a man and a child from Sierra Leone, was published online by the BBC in 1999. The man was one of many whose hands had been amputated during the country’s grisly ten-year Civil War. The child reached up to button the shirt of the man. The photo is absolutely striking: The angular positioning of their thin arms, the man’s sky-blue oxford shirt, the simple, kind action of the child buttoning the older man’s clothes because he had no hands.

According to a 2005 report by the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission, both the government and the rebels used hand amputations as a brutal tactic to draw the attention of media organizations. The report quoted a witness as saying: “When we started cutting hands, hardly a day BBC would not talk about us.”

Tucher asked the class to consider two propositions: Was it the BBC’s fault that people’s hands were being cut off? Or was it their duty to report what was happening?

Danielle Tcholakian, a fellow, argued that the photo was “tragedy porn.”

“You can tell one amputee story and have told the story that amputations are happening,” she said.

Alison Sargent, another fellow, disagreed. News organizations “have a responsibility to react,” she said.

Perhaps, ultimately, because reporters tend to be both ill-informed and over-sympathetic about human rights abuses, they have a responsibility to react to such events with a greater degree of skepticism.

Consider the case of Somaly Mam. A prominent advocate against sex trafficking from Cambodia, Mam just this month stepped down as the head of her charitable foundation after it was revealed that she fabricated her own experiences with sex trafficking and falsified others’ stories to gain attention and, ostensibly, funds.

Her story was heralded in the Western press. Time, Glamour, The New York Times and others valorized her.

But just as journalists held up Mam, a journalist also brought her down: It was Simon Marks’s years-long investigation for The Cambodia Daily and Newsweek that revealed her misdeeds.

Reporting is complicated. But sometimes so is the truth.

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