Yesterday I posted on what I thought was a rather silly piece about how there were too many journalists in Haiti. My normal position is that few things benefit from less coverage. But I modified that by adding in references to an excellent piece by Andy Kershaw in The Independent. Since then, I’ve spent a day watching CNN. Now normally I’m a BBC World Service man. I find rolling 24-hour television news rather tedious, filled as it is with dull-but-attractive people stating the obvious. But as I’m temporarily in a Cairo hotel, it’s all I’ve got.
What I have watched from Haiti has been truly horrifying. Not the misery of the Haitian people, whose lives have been turned upside down by an horrific earthquake, but the way Karl Penhaul reported on looters shot dead by police.
Now I believe a reporter’s primary duty is to report. A good reporter should be dispassionate, taking a step back to observe and add context. Emotion is often best put to one side in the interests of protecting focus. A good journalist lets the story tell itself. There is no need to add yourself and your emotions to the story. Your audience does not need that. Powerful stories do not need the reporter’s wide eyes or adjectives.
It is important to remain outside the story. It is unfair to criticise reporters in miserable surroundings who don’t distribute food, water or medicine. That is not their job. Taking stories away, bearing witness and making the world aware is more useful work for a journalist.
But there are limits.
There are times when your intervention can save a life. To video Gentile Cherie as he lay dying, to package a report and to speak in outraged tones about how his body was left on the sidewalk for hours is to overstep that mark. What sort of man stands with his eye on a watch to criticise how long the body is left without doing anything?
Reporters aren’t there to save the world. But I hope CNN is asking serious questions about what happened.
For a discussion of the decisionmaking that led to this report, see CNN’s Backstory. In some ways though, I think it raises more questions that it answers