When a reporter should be detached

Researching the day’s topic, Mark Sandell came across this blog on CNN. A senior, experienced and respected correspondent, John Vause, writes frankly about being in China in a car with an empty seat as hundreds of people ask him to take them out of the quake zone. If you read it, you’ll see he still isn’t sleeping after the answer he gave.

This raises the question, “When should reporters stop and help, and when should they simply report ?

Good reporters are supposed to be detached, so as the give credibility to their stories and to reach an audience of different persuasions. A report embedded with personal opinions and attitudes is likely to attract a specific section only.

There are of course reporters who work for news agencies known for their bias and ideological leanings. So the reporter has to reflect that. But for an independent reporter working for an independent and neutral news agency the reporting should be done professionally as the job for reporting is to make people know about facts and not to try to make them take a certain position.

There are cases in which reporters find themselves reporting in difficult situations or in areas in abject poverty or plunged in disaster. During their reporting they have all the facilities like food and shelter to report on people without a home or food. They become just witnesses of situations they can do nothing about, but which is a stuff for reporting a story.

Some journalists become so involved with the events they report about. There is the example of Kevin Carter whose work drew praise and condemnation in almost equal measures until finally, haunted by the horrors of the scenes he had witnessed, and beset by financial problems, he committed suicide at the age of 33.

The picture for which Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography on May 23, 1994 at Columbia University‘s Low Memorial Library is an example of the  horrors of the scenes he had witnessed before committing suicide.

For journalists, “doomed” to report just about such disasters are unlikely to remain indifferent. If they can do nothing, they’re at least beset by the memories of what they have witnessed.

Journalism remains a hard job, especially for those who are activists, and because of this they can’t remain detached. They try to help by whatever means through connections and by using their reports to raise awareness about issues close to their hearts.

The best help reporters can do professionally is to report the truth and nothing but the truth, especially about political scandals or abuses to make people aware of what’s around them. Getting personally implicated can have an effect with dealing with a situation that should be reported with total objectivity. A reporter who says, for example, in his/her report “ I was sad to see so many dead and injured people in an earthquake.” isn’t the same as the one who says, “ There were many dead and injured people in an earthquake.”


  1. Looney said,

    May 22, 2008 at 2:59 pm

    It seems to me that we must distinguish between genuine neutral reporting and a public posturing of neutral reporting. It is the second form that has dominated much of western media. In the US, Fox News announces that they are “fair and balanced” which always causes the left to scream. The right feels the same way about CNN.

    Regarding the earthquake, the selection of this incident and the amount of time invested is also a result of personal biases. There are many tragedies in the world and it isn’t plausible that “objectivity” determines the amount of reporting on particular incidents.

    Most news outlets are also businesses who need to draw customers. At some point, things usually switch around and the same advocates for neutral reporting will insist that their reporting is determined by the needs of the market. This usually happens when they are caught having violated the principal of unbiased reporting. A typical subtle example in our news is that we always see the terms “conservative democrat” and “moderate republican”, but never “moderate democrat” or “liberal republican”. The reasons for this derive from the ideological biases of the media.

    The most cynical view is that crises and panic sells news, so the news organization has a big incentive to encourage panic. I don’t believe that they are that malicious, but the unbiased reporter is something to be viewed with great suspicion.

  2. Abdelilah Boukili said,

    May 22, 2008 at 3:56 pm

    Thanks Looney for your interesting comment.

    The media is a reflection of interset groups. It’s hard to find many news agencies and channels acting in utter objectivity. But the recipient should be intelligent enough to read between the lines.

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