Haitian earthquake: Its not about you, Dr. Gupta

Jeff SallotJournalists were among the first outsiders to rush to the scene of the earthquake in Haiti. While most have described the devastation and challenges confronting survivors with professionalism and sensitivity, Jeff Sallot writes, some are using the assignment to promote their own celebrity.

It’s impossible to watch the news coverage of the Haitian earthquake for long without thinking about the tough ethical dilemmas confronting reporters at the scene and editors and producers back home.

The first is whether journalists need to focus on the face of death to tell the story. Do viewers need to see piles of bodies to understand what’s happened?

Unlike floods or mudslides, earthquakes cause horrible head wounds. Those killed in the quake seldom look like they passed away peacefully in their sleep. Like gunfire fatalities, earthquake deaths are usually ugly.

Journalists at the scene have a duty to witness and to report. Like all of us, they also have a duty to show respect for the dead. That’s the dilemma.

The story of the Haitian quake can – and has – been told in many ways. Interviewing survivors and asking them to describe what happened is one. Another is to pull back a bit and use helicopter shots, showing the widespread extent of the damage.

Reporting from the CBC studio in Toronto, science correspondent Bob McDonald pulled way back to give us a global view and a clear explanation of how the tectonic plates beneath Haiti were pushed and shoved by the powerful forces of nature.

We rarely need to allow the lens to linger over scenes of dead bodies to tell the story of natural disasters.

The dead are already beyond human help. And news pictures can’t stop the next quake. So what’s the point of showing bodies? On their own, shots of corpses piled up and awaiting disposal tell us little new about what happened the day of the quake.

Wise and compassionate reporters and editors know their work can help the living. They do this most effectively by giving voice and face to the survivors who still suffer.

Most of the journalists in Haiti whose reports I have seen did a commendable job of telling the story of Haitian survivors while showing respect for the dead.

The CBC’s Paul Hunter had a particularly sensitive piece about the heartbreaking work of the Haitian gravediggers. Hunter talked about the thing he had seen at a mass grave site. He described a pile of bodies hidden by bushes just beyond the view of the camera.

There are times when journalists should focus clearly on the dead to shock the world into recognizing a human tragedy that is still underway.

To our great shame, we didn’t do this during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The genocide ran on for about a hundred days as politicians in Washington, London, Paris and other world capitals and diplomats at the UN tried to turn a blind eye.

There was time in late April and May of 1994 when journalism could have made a difference in Rwanda. If we had shown those horrible images of hacked and mutilated corpses on front pages and TV screens, people around the world might have demanded that the UN act to stop the murders. Lives could have been saved.

If images of the dead can help the living, we are obliged to show them.

The current Haiti story raises another tough ethical dilemma. Should journalists participate in the events they are covering?

Some cases are simple. A reporter who sees a family struggling to lift a concrete slab off of a trapped child should not stand aside as an observer. You do those human things. You get your hands dirty helping to hoist rubble at a decisive moment when your participation can save a life.

You share your water and food rations with an injured woman who is nursing a baby. You hold the hand of the frightened child who reaches out to you.

But then you shut up about it. You shut up and get on with your duty to report. You don’t include pictures of yourself doing the decent and human thing in your report.

To use a show-biz metaphor, apt in the circumstances, some of the U.S. networks have jumped the shark with the reports from their medical correspondents.

Yes, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN and Dr. Richard Besser of ABC can play a very useful journalistic role by explaining to audiences the medical implications of shortages of antibiotics and clean water in Haiti. (They can do it just as effectively from the studio, by the way.)

But the journo-medics have gone well beyond that.

The network news chiefs have put their journo-medics into the field with the full knowledge and expectation that they will become part of the story. They are celebrities.

What must the doctors be thinking about the medical ethical dilemmas they face? Do they stay at a makeshift ER to suture more wounds? Or do they see their news deadline fast approaching and abandon the scene to go back to a feed point to cut their reports and send them back to the newsroom?

Why are we being asked to watch Dr. Gupta doing surgery on camera? Because he’s a CNN celebrity.

Celebrity is also why ABC airs images of anchor Diane Sawyer hoisting a Haitian orphan into the air and smothering him with hugs and kisses.

Celebrity, not journalism, was also why Anderson Cooper’s camera operator kept on shooting, instead of stopping to help, as the CNN reporter rescued an injured little boy from the ugly scene of a near-riot.

The network news chiefs want their stars to be at the centre of the story.

Viewers aren’t stupid, however. They know grandstanding when they see it. And it makes them cynical about journalists.

Now a journalism professor at Carleton University, Jeff Sallot has covered scenes of violent mass death in Armenia, Rwanda and elsewhere for The Globe and Mail.