Why, When Journalists Should be Humanitarians

By: Pechulano Ngwe Ali

Journalists should get involved in a story they are covering because it is important to be human. No story is worth a life.


While on assignment assisting in the production of a documentary on extreme poverty in Northern Cameroon recently, I faced an ethical dilemma. As I watched two seven-year-olds put a fierce fist fight over who should eat the biggest share of a banana peeling, I felt what it means to live in hunger. For over 10 minutes, I watched these youngsters fight over a banana peeling my colleague has just dropped. As a journalist, I found it difficult to get involved in the story and offer some help. I thought I should walk away after gathering the facts I needed for my story, but my ‘conscience’ wouldn’t let me. As I went closer to give them some money my colleague said: “ Pechulano, you are not supposed to do that.” My response was: “says who”? Words cannot describe how peaceful I felt when I offered a few coins to the children so that they could buy some food.

Journalists are often faced with challenges such as the one I faced while in the village. Overcoming these challenges could be among the toughest things they encounter in their profession. The contention is always between balancing their credibility and trying to be professionally ethical or protecting the image of the news organization for which they work.

Indeed, it is a difficult question whether or not a journalist should get involved in a story (s)he is reporting. It could even be controversial because some people may argue that journalists cannot help people all the time. However, it is relevant to think of what will happen should journalists have the chance to help, but do not. As much as it may be a hypothetical, it’s possible, and it does happen, as I will show in ensuing paragraphs.

Here is a tough question: What would you, as a journalist, do if someone threatens to commit suicide right in front you? Would you turn on your camera and film or stop him or her?

In 1979, late veteran journalist, Ed Bradley jumped into the ocean and rescued refugees refugees in a sinking boat struck by high waves. Yes, as a journalist you are bound by ethics to record and report reality, but should that be the only thing you do in a life-threatening scenario? Bradley could have just let the refugees sink and then tells the story later of how he watched as they drowned. He chose to follow his heart and not his brain.

Today, refugees criss-cross the world through unimaginable long distances and dangerous international waters. Journalists are prone to telling these stories. They are, no doubt, one of the first group of professionals to arrive on the scene of a crisis. These are the kind of ideal stories that make them win Emmys and Pulitzers. Ask what they do to help those in, say, disaster. They will say they have told the story, and it ends there.

Journalists want to tell stories that touch the hearts of readers. Indeed, they tell the stories, but it should go beyond just painting the picture.

In the early ‘90s, South African-born photojournalist, Kevin Carter photographed a Sudanese toddler in a refugee camp preyed on by a vulture. The mother left her to get food from the UN food supply jet that had just landed in the camp. Carter waited for 20 minutes, positioned himself and took shots; shots that later won a Pulitzer, before chasing the vulture away. When the picture was published in The New York Times, readers were intrigued and called, asking what happened to the girl.

He did chase the vulture away. However, his profession was of prime concern to him. Maybe if Carter did not commit suicide, after the incident, he would have answered the question many people ask today; what happened to the poor hungry toddler?

Vulture preys on a toddler, photo by Kevin Carter
Journalists want to tell stories. Good stories, strange stories, unique stories, bad ones too; but what stories can you and I tell of journalists? 

The Society of Professional Journalists holds that “journalists should report the story and not become part of the story”. I would say this rule should not hold in all cases. Consider yourself doing a story in a hunger-stricken area; nothing will change in your story if you contribute a cent to that child who is dying of hunger. A myopic thinker might see my thoughts as an insinuation of a transformation of journalists to social workers, or philanthropists; Being a journalist does not stop you from being a human being with a conscience. It means you are a living being, with a heart that beats, and sensitive to issues

CNN’s chief medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, was filmed giving medical assistance to a 15-day-old baby, a victim of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Wasn’t that awesome? An employer or journalists’ association that reprimands such action will only be likened to a heartless human being.

Without blinking, journalists want to tell stories. Good stories, strange stories, fresh and unique, bad ones too; but what stories can you and I tell of journalists? Maybe, the one that is told of our Pulitzer winner.

All these demonstrate that journalists should get involved in stories that have to do with life threatening situations.

Before being a watchdog for society, a journalist is human; and humanity is governed by the golden rule. No story is ever worth a life; plus, every life is more valuable than any story. Whenever necessary, journalists should get involved.