Tag Archives: tsunami

Journalist makes case against sanitizing disaster coverage

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.

Journalists must heed ethics in disaster coverage

A little more than a week after the historic earthquake, tsunami and nuclear emergency in Japan, journalists are beginning to reflect on our profession’s performance. How good a job of getting the news and informing the public have we been doing?

The run on iodine tablets up and down the U.S. west coast is a discouraging example of the limited ability of the many balanced news reports about radiation risk – and iodine risk, including serious allergic reactions – to quell panic-buying. It’s Cipro and anthrax all over again.

Sailor provides food and water to Japanese citizens during relief efforts. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr

Sailor provides food and water to Japanese citizens during relief efforts. Photo: Official U.S. Navy Imagery via Flickr

Recently, AHCJ posted a statement about some of the ethical issues that face journalists reporting from disaster zones. The statement focuses on the public service value of reporting from disaster zones and the imperative that the spotlight must remain on the people and events reporters observe, not the reporters themselves.

“In summary,” the statement concludes, “do not exploit vulnerability for gain or glory.”

Each disaster is different. The people of Japan are not interchangeable with the people of Haiti. Nevertheless, journalists inevitably encounter people who need help. The need may be for a bottle of water or for urgent medical care. Aid should be given freely, without creating a sense of obligation. When one hand offers a thirsty person a bottle of water, while the other hand holds a microphone, is consent to be interviewed truly unencumbered? Or does such an exchange inevitably plant the thought in a person’s mind that the interview is payment for the water?

There are legions of aid workers moving into the northeast coastal region of Japan. Reporters seeking to tell stories of the people providing care and those receiving it should have no trouble finding examples. Stories that feature the acts of a reporter have an inherent “look at me!” aspect that offers no additional value to readers and audiences.

Every day and every story is unique, so it is impossible to say without exception how a journalist should act in each and every circumstance; yet when we intrude on a scene of personal suffering, we should always remember why we are there.