Journalist makes case against sanitizing disaster coverage

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

At a time when the ethics of anecdotal and emotion-heavy disaster coverage have come into question, as they tend to do in the wake of events such as the earthquakes in Japan and New Zealand and the upheavals in the Middle East, it’s worth looking back on commentary from Donna Rosene Leff, Ph.D., titled “In Defense of Appealing to Emotions in Media Coverage of Catastrophe,” published last year in Virtual Mentor, the American Medical Association’s online journal about ethics.

Leff builds her case around a few key examples, most notably the collective decision not to air or publish images of men and women jumping from the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001 – a decision she questions with some help from Tom Junod. It centers on the idea that journalists ought not withhold their most intense images and stories, because they can “put viewers in touch with what” victims experienced.

Sanitized stories about groups of victims or general circumstances may inform to a degree, but they also allow us to avoid experiencing the true devastation occurring on the ground. Emotional appeals—and disturbing images of disaster victims are the very epitome of emotional appeal—illuminate the reality of the situation in ways that mere facts cannot.

After all, Leff concludes, “journalists’ moral responsibility isn’t to elicit a particular reaction or outcome; their responsibility is to bring home the truth.” Though that conclusion leads to a few questions, the most salient being one she alludes to earlier in the piece. In modern disasters, from the Indian Ocean tsunami to the Haiti earthquake, news coverage hasn’t just brought home the truth, it also has home billions upon billions of dollars in donations. Disaster journalism seems to be a major driver of relief dollars, dollars that are often given in response to the most emotional coverage.

For AHCJ’s guidance regarding disaster coverage and aid to victims, see our relevant statement.

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