When should journalists intervene?

This picture, from Saturday’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., has started a mini-debate that is as old as journalism itself: When should journalists step in to help, if at all?

The man with the Nazi repellent is Corey Long, 23, an elder care worker, using a spray can the racists threw at him.

But the picture doesn’t tell the whole story, Long tells The Root.

If you look closely at Long’s picture, there’s an elderly white man standing in between Long and his friend. The unknown man was part of the counterprotests, too, but was afraid, and Long and his friends were trying to protect him. Even though, Long says, those who were paid to protect the residents of Charlottesville were doing just the opposite.

“The cops were protecting the Nazis, instead of the people who live in the city,” Long said. “The cops basically just stood in their line and looked at the chaos. The cops were not protecting the people of Charlottesville. They were protecting the outsiders.”

But Long held a particular grievance against photographers who took pictures instead of stepping in to help when he and his friend, Deandre Harris, were jumped by the Nazis.

“The white supremacists told us to ‘die, nigger’ in the garage,” Long said. And when one had the chance, he picked up a stick and tried to use it to his advantage.

Even when Long was finally able to help Harris and get him to safety, the white supremacists were unrelenting. Harris and Long ran into a stairway, and they were chased there by the racists as well.

“The Nazis tried to force their way into the stairway that we were hiding in. The fact was that they [photographers] just stood around recording everything. The fact that they didn’t help us. … It was outrageous,” Long stated.

The question of when to intervene last came up in 2015 when the Tampa Bay Times knew a postal worker was going to illegally fly his gyrocopter into Washington, D.C., airspace and didn’t alert anyone.

“Apply common sense and weigh the value of the story against the potential harm to the public. That will continue to be our standard,” NPR’s standards boss, Mark Memmott, wrote to his staff at the time.

That reveals the dilemma. When to intervene is easy in some cases, not so much in most, and good luck trying to identify when the moment demands action.

Related: Are we journalists first? (Columbia Journalism Review)

  • Al

    I think of this when I see photos of refugees crossing the Mediterranean. The photos themselves are necessary and powerful, and I’m not sure I could only take the photos and not intervene.

  • AL287

    This reminds me of the counter sit-ins at Woolworth’s in the 60’s and the Freedom Riders.

    I don’t remember if journalists intervened in that violence but perhaps, Bob you know of some links that could answer that question.

    The bull of hate, bigotry and racism is out of the barn and one man is chiefly responsible—Donald Trump. Whether we can control it now that it is running through the political and social china closets of the country remains to be seen.

    I do believe journalists should intervene when they see egregious violence that goes beyond protest. While a picture is worth a thousand words (John Kelly’s crossed arms and bowed head come to mind here) to stand by while a person is beaten and kicked to sell newspapers is reprehensible.

    • // while a person is beaten and kicked to sell newspapers is reprehensible.

      A bit unfair. Most journalists could give a damn about advertising sales or newspaper sales. They’re trying to tell a story in the belief that the story needs to be told. Their dilemma is ethical and principled and shouldn’t be degraded .

      • AL287

        >>Most journalists could give a damn about advertising sales or newspaper sales.<<

        You are not most journalists as most journalists work for profit-focused news agencies and the owners of those agencies don't give a rat's ass about the news or ethics and principle as long as they rake in the cash and keep their shareholders at bay.

        I believe that public radio and TV journalists WOULD stop and defend a person(s) under attack. They are in the journalism industry to make a difference and are cut from a different cloth.

        I painted with too broad a brush there and I apologize.

        • Well, having worked in the business for 45 years, I do know something about “most journalists.” I’ve never seen anyone who works in a newsroom who thinks about how much money a story translates to. The tension between the business end and the journalism end has always been there and always should be there. That’s why the two departments rarely meet.

          I’ve worked for commercial news operations almost as long as public ones and there is scant difference between the two where journalists are concerned.

          I’ll never dishonor the people in journalism, particularly those in the commercial end that put themselves in harm’s way, by affirming any statement that those in public media have some sort of higher calling, more ethics, or a better character. Never.

  • Kellpa07

    I believe it was Peter Jennings who was asked whether as a journalist, if he was reporting from the battlefield, and had advanced information of a sneak attack on US troops, whether he would act to try to get that information to the troops. Initially, he stated he would. Shortly thereafter, when another journalist stated absolutely that he would not, Jennings backtracked and agreed with that reporter.
    I read about this years ago, (obviously, since it included Peter Jennings), I believe it was in the Atlantic. Some of my details may be wrong, but the upshot was “Journalists are not to interfere. Ever.”

    • Most journalists will have a quick answer to the question and then backtrack upon further reflection. Some things appear black and white and can be answered with certainty and clarity. This is not one of those. There is no correct answer other than “sometimes you do” and “sometimes you don’t” and you have to figure it out which time is which at the time. It’s a particularly acute problem for the photographer.

      If you do a search on Google for the question, there are some really great examples.

  • jon

    On the plus side the photographer also didn’t join in the with nazi’s either.

    If telling the story is important, and I think that it is important for people to see this, as terrible as it is…. then having some one objective to tell the story is also important…

  • KTN

    Nazi repellent – that’s awesome.
    A long time ago, in the early 80’s, I remember a story about a man who called a local tv station telling them he was going to self-immolate at a local park. The station sent a crew, who then filmed (as news I guess) this guy setting him self ablaze. They didn’t step in, they just filmed his suicide. I thought it was pathetic then, and continue to do so now. We have a moral obligation to do what we can, even if that puts you in harms way – I think it’s called being a human.

    • kevins

      “Nazi repellent”…that made me choke on the Whopper candy I was eating…permission requested to use that line with my Tennessee relatives.

    • Where was this? What was the TV station?

      • Ah, here it is Alabama. 1983.

        The guy sued the station for not trying to stop him.

        http://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/30/us/around-the-nation-roofer-sues-tv-crew-for-filming-immolation.html

        He lost.

        http://www.nytimes.com/1984/01/30/us/around-the-nation-roofer-sues-tv-crew-for-filming-immolation.html

        UPI, however, reported an important fact.

        The station told the cops. The cops showed up but the guy wasn’t there. Then the guy showed up after the cops left.

        • KTN

          I thought it was Florida, but ’83 sounds right, so this is probably the case. Didn’t know the outcome, only the provocation – the internet brings things back to life.

        • KTN

          I wanted to double back here and say that my premise; if you are in a position to help someone from harming themselves or worse, you ought to take that call, even if you are a reporter, photgrapher etc. This is however a difficult situation, what with being an impartial witness and the moral dilemma we face in a stressful situation absent all the facts,- I want to echo Junbug, because she makes a salient point about moral obligation and compass too. We ain’t all the same.
          Last weekends march and subsequent response from the ignorant racist has proven that all bets are off – you’re on your own

  • wjc

    The Vice News story from Monday (available on HBO) was chilling. The great thing about the report was that it mostly consisted of the actual events and interviews with participants and very little of the journalist herself.

    I think journalists need to help when people are in need of immediate assistance, but the line is hard to see at times.

  • Zachary

    It’s kind of the “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle” of Journalism, isn’t it? Does the act of observation and/or documentation, change the results? (i.e. if no one paid any attention to these asshats, would there still been the violence?)

    Is there any Legal fallout from observing, but not acting? Can you be prosecuted for inaction? If there are fatalities, are you an accessory?

  • Jack Ungerleider

    Interestingly the second thing I noticed about the picture was the elderly white man standing next to the guy with the flaming spray can. When the story mentioned he was an elder care worker, I wondered if this was someone he worked with and they were bystanders that got caught up in the confrontation. A few sentences later the details are provided.

    Taken out of context with no explanation I wonder how many people will assume the crowd on the stairs is attempting to “rescue” the old man? The images help us understand what went on, but the words are needed too.

    As for the topic of the post, I don’t have a good sense as to when someone should intervene. Particularly if you’re not sure what’s going on.

  • Barton

    I wish this – like many things in life – was clear cut and easy.

    I think the idea of journalists intervening AS the events are happening is wrong: they should observe (and hopefully present unbiased reports). But I am more torn about the idea of them knowing something and not preventing it. The example of the self-immolation KTN presents is the perfect example. Then again, if the self-immolation was a political action and not just suicide, would I feel different? I don’t know….

    If a journalist had known about Sandy Hook early enough to prevent that, but did nothing except get the best action shots? I think I’d help support the families suing the journalist as an accessory to murder….