When should journalists ‘get involved’?

There’s a lot more to the ethics of journalism than rules designed to protect the image of a news organization. There’s also the very real — and much more relevant and difficult — question of when a journalist should “get involved.”

In 1979, the late Ed Bradley waded into the ocean to help refugees whose boat had been swamped by waves. Some ethicists criticized him for getting involved in a story he was covering.

In St. Louis, a newspaper photographer took a picture of a flag in a trash can as part of a story about home foreclosures.

flag_trash_can.jpg

Apparently, some readers said the photographer, David Carson, should’ve removed the flag.


As a journalist, I’m bound by ethics to only record and document reality. I never stage it or change it, even after I’m done photographing it. There are only rare exceptions when a journalist can and should intervene, like in a life-threatening situation. For example, if I were available to help save a drowning person I’d dive in after them.

Several people questioned my respect for veterans and all they have fought for over the years.

I have great respect for veterans and their service. Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II, and my father served on the U.S.S Enterprise during Vietnam. While I never served in the military, I traveled to both Iraq and Afghanistan to cover American and NATO forces in those wars. On top of that, I’m named after my father’s best friend, David Gray Prentice, who was killed in Vietnam.

It raises the question of when a journalist should be “in this world” and not just “of this world.” What would have been the harm of removing the flag from the trash after it was photographed? Why can’t a journalist get involved only in life-threatening situations? If you were a journalist and you did a story on hunger, why couldn’t you slip $5 into the hands of the mother you just interviewed so she could get something to eat?

I frequently photograph the flag being inappropriately — and perhaps ignorantly — desecrated, such as this display in Belle Plaine…

This week, I noticed the flags over St. Paul’s Wabasha Street bridge are becoming tattered.

wakota_bridge_flags.jpg

If one had fallen to the sidewalk below, I would’ve picked it up and disposed of it properly. Last year, while covering the flooding in the Red River Valley, I helped sandbag.

I made a few trips into Fargo to pick up some supplies for homeowners who needed some.

I would argue that wanting to help people save their homes did nothing to disrupt the value of the coverage, nor diminish the value of the MPR “brand.” I never thought twice about whether ethicists would think less of me. It never occurred to me to care whether they did.

(h/t: Romenesko)

  • Ken Paulman

    The sandbagging is perfectly fine, just make sure you get a quote from the rising waters to provide balance.

  • Bob Moffitt

    Nearly every journalist “gets involved” in some way, and that’s what I want.

    I guess we could just use robot cameras if we wanted cold facts and body counts.

    Sure, professionalism counts, but so does humanity. I wonder what the ethicists who blasted Ed Bradley had said if their families were in that sinking boat?

  • JackU

    Bob, let me turn this one around on you. If you saw a similar situation in St Paul, and you knew that St Paul had a city ordinance about taking things out of other peoples trash. A sort of anti-paparazzi law. Would you still remove the flag from the trash?

    I don’t know the specifics of St Paul or St Louis law but a “no dumpster diving” law is not too far fetched.

  • Bob Collins

    Sure I would. And then I’d wait for all the phone calls from TV news show producers who want to interview the guy who went to jail because he pulled the American flag out of the trash.