Should Journalists Interfere: A Harder Question than it Seems

Over at GOOD magazine, Cord Jefferson posed the question: “Should Journalists Who Witness Killings Try and Stop Them?” While it might be tempting—from a humanitarian point of view—to answer “yes,” that might not always be the case.

Jefferson wrote this piece in a response to a New York Times story about a mob beating in Diepsloot, South Africa. A freelance journalist recorded the beating on film and did nothing to intervene. (You can read an account and subsequent investigation of the beating here.)

It’s a harder question than you think to answer. Honestly, I think it goes past the realm of journalism ethics. Rather than asking if I—as a journalist—could I stand by and watch someone get beaten to death, I would ask if I—as a person—could stand by and watch someone get beaten to death? I would hope not. But would I intervene if I thought my own life was in danger? That’s a much harder question and not one I think can answer from desk in a comfortable office.

Whenever this issue comes up, I’m always reminded of Kevin Carter, the South African photojournalist who committed suicide after winning the Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of a child dying of starvation. He didn’t help her. In his case, there was no threat of retaliation. As far as I know, he was alone with the child. For a great article on his life, read this TIME magazine piece.

So, in this particular case, what do I think? I think the journalist did the right thing. According to the account in the New York Times, a woman who knew the victim yelled that he was innocent, and the mob responded by asking her if she wanted to “die with him.” I can only imagine a rescue attempt by the journalist would have elicited a similar response.

Is it an easy decision to swallow? Absolutely not. But I don’t think it’s one that that journalist is likely to ever forget.

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