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?

A counter demonstrator uses a lighted spray can against a white nationalist demonstrator at the entrance to Lee Park in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday. Steve Helber | Associated Press

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)