Chapter 4: For Journalists, a Clash of Moral Duties Front-Line Decisions: Observer or Participant?

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Chapter 4: For Journalists, a Clash of Moral Duties
Front-Line Decisions: Observer or Participant?
Journalists’ intervention in the Haiti earthquake:
Society of Professional Journalists, “SPJ cautions journalists: Report the story; don’t become a part of it,” news release issued Jan. 22, 2010. Even in a crisis, journalists must be objective. Actions that are not objective: advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.
Journalists’ intervention in Katrina:
Rachel Smolkin, “Off the sidelines,” American Journalism Review, December/January 2006,
Fly-on-the-wall reporting:
Sonia Nazario, “Ethical dilemmas in telling Enrique’s story,” Nieman Reports, Fall 2006,
Helping the police:
Paul Martin Lester, “Think fast: What you gonna do when they come for you?”, News Photographer, November 2007, 14. Discusses the case in which a news photographer helped police by tackling a fleeing suspect.
Philip Seib and Kathy Fitzpatrick, Journalism Ethics (Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace, 1997). The authors discuss the question of cooperation with police on 122.
Bruce W. Sanford, Don’t Shoot the Messenger: How Our Growing Hatred of the Media Threatens Free Speech for All of Us (New York: The Free Press, 1999). Sanford addresses the question on 128.
Alan Wolper, “Ethics Corner: The press must be observers, not agents for the police,” Editor & Publisher, April 17, 1999. After a riot in East Lansing, Mich., the prosecutor subpoenaed photos taken by news organizations. (Academic databases)
The Associated Press, “Monitor reporter becomes part of story,” Concord Monitor, Nov. 26, 2002. A suspected murderer, surrounded by police, promised to surrender if he could tell his story to a reporter. The Monitor’s Sarah Vos spoke to the fugitive, Andrew McCrae, and he surrendered. (News databases)
Giving criminals access to the news media:
Clifford G. Christians, Kim B. Rotzoll, Mark Fackler, Kathy Brittain McKee, and Robert H. Woods Jr., Media Ethics: Cases and Moral Reasoning, 7th Ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2005). The authors discuss the Unabomber case on 61.
Intervention at Central High:
Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff, The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). The authors describe interventions by journalists on 159-161.
David Margolick, “Through a lens, darkly,”, Sept. 24, 2007.
Lessons from the battlefield:
David Zucchino, Thunder Run: The Armored Strike to Capture Baghdad (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004). Zucchino describes how a reporter helped a wounded soldier, 57-58.

Felicity Barringer, “Why reporter’s discovery was shared with officials,” The New York Times, Jan. 21, 2002.

Kelly Heyboer, “Face to face with a suicide bomber,” American Journalism Review, June 2002.

Bob Steele, “The journalist/physician: Can he be both?”, poynteronline, April 4, 2003. Steele discusses the case of Sanjay Gupta, a physician covering the Iraq invasion for CNN. He performed emergency brain surgery on an Iraqi boy injured in the war.

Related to the Topic
Bob Steele, “Talking ethics: Competition vs. consideration,” poynteronline, Oct. 21, 1998. Journalists telephoned a man who was holding a hostage.
Alicia C. Shepard, “NPR Ombudsman: When listeners want to send money to people in stories,” May 22, 2008.
Case Study No. 1: The Journalist as a Witness to Suffering
Sonia Nazario, reporter, and Clarence Williams, photographer, “Orphans of addiction,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 16-17, 1997. Read the series and related articles:
Williams’ photographs won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for feature photography and may be viewed at:,Feature+Photography.
Susan Paterno, “The intervention dilemma,” American Journalism Review, March 1998.
Tran Ha, “A journey through the ‘ethical minefield,’ ” April 14, 2000.
Bob Steele, “Journey through the ‘ethical minefield,’ part 2,” April 17, 2000.
Additional Case Studies
Threatened burning of the Koran. The presence of journalists can influence the story itself, as was demonstrated in coverage of a threat by a Gainesville, Fla., pastor to burn a copy of the Koran on Sept. 11, 2010, the ninth anniversary of the terrorist attacks. His threat became a top story after there were protests against Jones in Afghanistan and after the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Gen. David H. Petraeus, warned that the Koran burning could endanger troops. Pastor Terry Jones decided against the burning, but six months later he did burn a Koran – and overseas rioting followed.

  • Brian Stelter, “Coverage of Koran case stirs questions on media role,” The New York Times, Sept. 9, 2010.

  • Kelly McBride, “How to report on Quran burning and other hate speech,” poynteronline, Sept. 9, 2010.

  • Howard Kurtz, “Pastor’s mosque bluff transfixes media,” The Washington Post, Sept. 9, 2010.

  • Kevin Sieff, “Florida pastor Terry Jones’s Koran burning has far-reaching effect,” The Washington Post, April 2, 2011. On March 20, Jones dressed in a judicial robe and ordered a copy of the Koran to be torched in a portable fire pit. “It’s like people forgot about us,” Jones said Saturday. “But we kept doing what we do.” Later, a mob incited by the burning of the Koran attacked a U.N. compound in Mazar-e Sharif, killing seven U.N. employees, and related protests in Kandahar left nine dead and more than 90 injured.
Filming a Self-immolation. In Jacksonville, Alabama, in 1983, an unemployed man set himself on fire while a two-person television team filmed him. [See separate file in this folder.]
Unabomber Manifesto. Keith Woods, dean of faculty of the Poynter Institute, explores the case in which a bomber threatened to kill more people unless The New York Times and The Washington Post published his 35,000-word treatise.

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