I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. When I was in Kindergarten, it was little stories. Then it progressed into poems, next, letters to Green Peace, (Thanks to my mom for indulging a 7 year whale-loving activist), then it was personal essays, and so on. It eventually bloomed into a full blown obsession with journalism when I saw a beautiful blonde from Louisville Kentucky outshine an ever cranky Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes. Diane Sawyer certainly wasn’t the first major female journalist, but to me, she was a sort of Martha Gelhorn of the Prime Time journalism circuit. Bold, unafraid and intelligent. But this isn’t about Diane. This is about a profession that captured my heart for a good 15 years…that is…until I saw an interview on the BBC with an Ethnic Albanian woman who had lost her entire family in the Kosovo. It was less of an interview and more like an ambush. The woman was searching through the rubble for her infant daughter, clutching the remnants of a tattered doll. The woman was visibly shell shocked, grief stricken. She kept raising her eyes to the sky above. One can only guess what she was thinking, feeling at that moment. Meanwhile, a hard-nosed journalist peppered the woman with absurd questions like “how are you feeling in this moment?” and “what will you do now?” Where was empathy? The humanity? Did that journalist have any idea what it felt like to watch their entire family be blown up, gunned down, raped, all the while, having your people become the target of “ethnic cleansing”? Where was the human in this human interest story?
The teller of this ‘story’ would have been praised for her efforts, and the story itself would have been representative of ‘good journalism’. It was emotional, the subject was interviewed in situ, the misery was palpable, the war was further sensationalized and the bleeding hearts of the West would have been stirred. But like most stories from the front lines, little thought is given to the implications of exploiting the misery of others. So what if this woman was stripped of her one last shred of dignity? The story made the six o’clock news, and a truth was told.
To this day, my fists ball up as I recall every agonizing moment of that “interview”. But that’s good journalism, right? Drama. Misery. In your face. “Truth telling”. Get the story. Boost the ratings. Forget about the implications. So what if this woman was stripped of one last shred of dignity. The story was told. Plain and simple. This of course wasn’t the last or even the first (unethical) exchange to play out on international television, but that was the day I decided journalism was not for me. I couldn’t stomach the underlying current of immorality, an often blatant lack of humanity. As the great Morgan Freeman once said, “I refuse to take part in anything that denigrates a people”. And this is what inspired the topic of my post. So here is my question, what if journalists employed the same approach to stories about the human condition?
“Journalists have the duty and privilege to seek and report the truth, encourage civic debate to build our communities, and serve the public interest. We vigorously defend freedom of expression and freedom of the press as guaranteed under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We return society’s trust by practising our craft responsibly and respecting our fellow-citizens’ rights.”
“Anthropologists may choose to link their research to the promotion of well-being social critique, or advocacy. As with all anthropological, determinations regarding what is in the best interest of others, or what kinds of efforts are appropriate to increase well being are value laden and should reflect sustained discussion with others concerned. Anthropological work must similarly reflect deliberate and thoughtful consideration of potential, unintended consequences and long term impacts on individuals, communities, tangible and intangible heritage and environments.”
(The above excerpts were taken from the Canadian Association of Journalists website, and the other from the American Anthropological Association).
I’m one of those rare anthropology majors that actually wants to be a anthropologist, not just some art student who chased a fancy. So it was fitting that one of the classes I took last semester required me to step out into the field to get some experience conducting a research project. The scale of my project paled in comparison to something I would be doing in grad school, but I loved going through the motions of research. One of the most important components of my project was a series of interviews that had to be conducted, transcribed and reflected on. Unlike a journalist, this involved more than just shoving a recorder in someone’s face, doing some lackadaisical fact checking and twisting the words to make a story fit. There was a strict process. Permission needed to be attained. Confidentiality forms signed, and the identity of my informants protected. And every step of the way, it was my duty as anthropologist to ensure that the ethics were upheld. As a discipline, we recognize and appreciate the implications of our work. It’s personal, probing at times, and our findings have the potential to alter the fabric of a community significantly. Our work is collaborative, insightful and would be, in my opinion, worthless without the contributions of those who choose to share their stories with us. Imagine, if you will, if for human interest stories, journalists were required to take into consideration the epistemology, psychology, and cultural practices of the individual? Sure, it would require some research, any a little more time than the average story, but wouldn’t it make for better journalism?
I have generalized of course, and don’t want to paint all journalists with the same brush. However, it seems the media machine, despite often claiming to be ‘truth-seeking’, is far more concerned with the sensationalization of one’s misery than fully understanding a situation from all angles, or the implications it has by interjecting its own discourse. This may not apply to all genres of news stories, but at the very least, it’s food for thought.