After the attack in Manchester, journalists must perform a balancing act between pursuing the story and behaving ethically. It's an act I know wellby James Rodgers / May 23, 2017 / Leave a comment
Diferent people respond to being interviewed in different ways. Photo: Kiran Jonnalagadda “Go on to the next crying woman,” the instruction, from correspondent to cameraman, came out of the open door of a hotel room. Deadline approached. The team, who had been out all day in the bone-chilling damp of early winter in the North Caucasus, were checking that day’s footage—up against time, unreliable technology, and, perhaps most pressingly, the competition. It was 1999, and war in Chechnya, the second conflict in three years, was daily driving thousands of refugees into the neighbouring regions. It was there that the international press, impeded by Russian army restrictions and the threat of kidnapping (or worse), had gathered to try to tell this most brutal and bloody story of war on Russia’s southern edge. Far from the audience’s own experience, and across a language barrier, the bereaved and dispossessed were seen only for their gestures. They wept. It made for greater drama on TV: having an impact which might otherwise have been lost in translation. Prevented as they were from getting closer to the action—although some brave souls did evade the Russian army, and make it to the real danger zone—some reporters were reduced to putting questions which might provoke tears among the traumatised, and hopefully, help to tell the story. A delicate balance As a correspondent who often covered armed conflict, I had to talk to people who had suffered the violent death of family members, sometimes before their eyes. Now, as the leader of a course in International Journalism, I teach—among other subjects—journalistic ethics. Stories such as last night’s attack in Manchester invariably remind any journalist of their responsibilities—although sometimes only after the event. For getting the news comes first—and that can often mean straying over the line. Competition is such a vital part of a press doing its job properly that it can sometimes prompt impropriety. Any reporter on a story involving human tragedy—refugees fleeing war, parents of a child killed in a bus crash—will wonder how far others are willing to go. Is that phone call, or knock on the door (known in the trade as the “death knock”), intrusive? Or is it going to give people a chance to express their grief? Will it lead to a complaint, or a journalist of the year award? Different people respond in different ways Nobody knows for sure, which is why the rules are so hard to make. Different people will respond in different ways to the same request; indeed, the same people may respond in different ways at different times. Preparing a background story to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in 2003, I spoke to a man whose friend had been killed by a suicide bomber. He spoke honestly of his pain, and of the prospects for peace. When I called him again some months later, he put the phone down. He had nothing more to say. My first thought this morning was of the city—Manchester—where I went to school, and where I still return to watch football with my oldest and closest friends. Journalists, whatever their critics say, are human. They must always remember their contributors are people, too. In Manhattan a few days after 9/11, I interviewed relatives still searching for the missing. I agonised over broadcasting their words. They were sure they would find those they sought. I knew they almost certainly would not. Should I let them express their vain hopes? I decided, in the end, that it might help to explain what this violent, sudden, loss felt like if I did. Today such sentiments have been all over social media. There, the journalist has to face dilemmas of a different kind. Pain may already be public, but taking it from an obscure Twitter feed to an international website is an editorial and ethical decision of its own. If it helps to inform and explain, fine. If it is just an exercise in gawping at grief, think again.