About AHCJ: General News

AHCJ urges reporters in disaster areas to avoid focusing on selves Date: 12/20/10


Contact: Len Bruzzese, AHCJ, 573-884-5606

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Reporters covering cholera in Haiti and the latest tsunami in Indonesia bring the world's attention to people in urgent need, just as they did following the Haiti earthquake and Pakistan floods earlier this year. However, a few news reports from these and other places in crisis raise questions of journalistic ethics and professional responsibility.

  • Were some stories more about the reporter than the event or the people affected by it?

  • Did reporters fully respect the medical privacy and other rights of individuals whom they used to tell their stories?

  • Did some individuals who gave interviews or allowed their pictures to be broadcast do so out of a sense of obligation to journalists who gave them care or assistance?

These and other questions prompted the board of AHCJ to consider these questions and offer guidance to our colleagues.1


Reporting on war, natural disaster, and epidemics – and alerting the world to human suffering and need – serves a compelling public interest. On such assignments, journalists inevitably encounter people with urgent needs for shelter, food, or medical attention. Human decency prompts many journalists to offer aid and comfort to people who are suffering, but reporters must not profit from these acts nor exploit those whom they help.

People in distress who receive aid from a journalist may feel obligated to help that journalist in his or her job. Even under difficult reporting conditions, journalists must ensure that subjects of news reports and photos, audio, and video recordings give consent freely. If journalists have given aid, they should seek other faces for their stories.  Journalists who also are doctors, nurses or other health care professionals should consider as well the Hippocratic Oath and other professional standards that require caregivers to "keep secret"2 what they glean from patients.

Giving aid to people in need is natural and often commendable, but in a media environment where celebrity brings financial rewards, stories that feature journalists' aid efforts elevate their personal interests and those of their employers above the public's interest.

In summary, do not exploit vulnerability for gain or glory.

Excerpts from relevant ethical statements:

♦ AHCJ Statement of Principles

  • Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Use special sensitivity and understand legal limits when dealing with children, mentally handicapped people and inexperienced sources or subjects. Always consider alternatives that minimize harm while making accurate reporting possible.

  • Show respect. Illness, disability and other health challenges facing individuals must not be exploited merely for dramatic effect.

Society of Professional Journalists, Statement by Kevin Smith, President, 1/22/2010

"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."


[1] We thank Andrew Holtz, Gary Schwitzer, Tom Linden, M.D., and Julian Pecquet for their assistance in drafting these recommendations.

[2] Greek Medicine: The Hippocratic Oath, translated by Michael North, National Library of Medicine, 2002, retrieved Aug. 18, 2010, from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/greek/greek_oath.html.