Let’s suppose you saw a boatload of people overturn not far from shore. You could save their lives by wading out a short distance. Would you do it? It’s a no-brainer. Of course you would.
So does it say something about the problem with the journalistic community that it caused some outrage in 1979 when the late Ed Bradley, who was covering the boat people escaping from Vietnam, waded into the water to help people get to shore after Malaysians on the beach started stoning them? There’s a clip of it here if you can stand waiting for the commercial to end.
“You shouldn’t get involved in the story,” was some of the milder criticism. To the journalism community’s credit, the criticism died down after the documentary won just about every award for journalism.
I’m reminded of the Bradley story because an incident in Ohio this week shows that there’s still a mentality that it’s ethical for journalists not to get involved in certain stories, even if people get hurt because of that conviction.
The way my blogging friend, Dave Gamble, tells it, the reporters and editors at the Columbus Dispatch newspaper got a tip that Skybus Airlines would go belly-up at midnight earlier this month. Sensing a story, the paper bought tickets and…
They didn’t tell any of the passengers departing on flights on the last day of the company’s operations that their trips were now involuntarily one-way. In other words, they knowingly and deliberately allowed passengers to get on an airplane and fly hundreds of miles away without telling them that they would be stranded with no way back….
Dispatch editor Benjamin Marrison confirmed in his column earlier this week that his reporters were not allowed to tell anyone that they were about to be stranded far from home:
But because we agreed to the 9:30 embargo, (Reporter Amy) Saunders was told to keep quiet about the looming airline shutdown. Her assignment was to report on passengers’ reactions after learning Skybus had folded. When the plane landed, Saunders knew she could tell the passengers. “I was anxious,” she said, because she didn’t know how they’d take the news.
We don’t interfere with the course of news except in extreme circumstances, such as when our silence on an impending event would put someone in harm’s way.
But wouldn’t that require the editors/reporters to know all of the passengers ahead of time on all of the flights, to be able to determine whether their being stuck away from home puts them in harm’s way?
On Monday, in the face of criticism that wouldn’t go away, Marrison took another stab at it:
In summary, we don’t violate embargoes or source agreements.
If only Ed Bradley were still around to straighten them out.
Update 9:36 a.m. Thurs. – Another angle, there’s a financial connection between the newspaper and the airline. See the comments.