The Guwahati incident shows that journalists do not always adhere to the ethical standards of behaviour that they demand of others

I remember watching “The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club,” an American documentary about the suicide of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, at a film festival organised by my law school in 2010. The documentary that was nominated for the Academy Awards depicts the gut-wrenching tale of Carter’s enduring depression by the carnage he witnessed as a photographer in warzones.

In 1993, Carter took a trip to Sudan. There he saw a little girl, bent over with hunger and dehydration, eyed by a nearby vulture. Careful not to disturb the vulture, he waited for 20 minutes until the vulture was close enough, positioned himself for the best possible image, fixed his frame and shot.

The photo won him the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. At a conference, he was asked what happened to the girl. He didn’t know. Didn’t he do anything to help her? No. Carter came under heavy criticism for just photographing — and not helping — the little girl. Two years later, heavily disturbed by the incident, Carter committed suicide.

The documentary poses a moral dilemma. I was left asking myself — how many journalists would frighten away the vulture and help the child? How many would take the photograph? Witnessing the outrage against the journalist who shot the Guwahati molestation video, my mind wandered back to Kevin Carter. Should journalists put the camera down and help or should they remain objective observers?

Despite an increasing concern that many, including the Chief Minister of Assam, have expressed about the ethical obligation of the Guwahati journalist, there are others who remain extremely sceptical. Mr. Raghu Rai, India’s noted photojournalist, expressed solidarity for the journalist by commenting that a journalist’s only job is to report the story. He said that professionally speaking, journalists have to cover such things, no matter how distasteful.

Little time for reflection

Strong arguments can be made in support of Mr. Rai’s position. Journalism perhaps requires a certain clinical detachment from and disregard for some of the ethical niceties and sensitivities of everyday life. Moreover, journalism often requires rushed thinking and action, leaving little time for deep reflection. Further, by taking the video of the girl, that communicated an utter state of horror and despair, the journalist made a larger comment about the situation of women in India and helped promote the important debate on safety of women in our cities.

Interestingly, many years ago, Martin Luther King gave similar advice to a photographer from Life Magazine, who on seeing small children being shoved to the ground by policemen, stopped taking pictures and went to their aid. Ron F. Smith’s book on journalism and ethics mentions King’s statement to the photographer — “The world doesn’t know this happened, because you didn’t photograph it. I’m not being cold-blooded about it, but it is so much more important for you to take a picture of us getting beaten up than for you to be another person joining in the fray.”

So, what does the outrage against the Guwahati journalist tell us? Is it merely a case of people, far away from danger, from their living rooms, claiming the position of superiority? Or is it necessary for media persons to reflect upon this incident to enable them to clarify their intuitions, concepts and beliefs regarding journalistic and media practices?

On a basic level, the entire incident raises the bigger question of motivation behind telling a story. Here, I make the normative claim (and I am no journalist) that a journalist’s motivation should always be to tell the story at a deeper level than what has actually happened. The guiding force behind reporting facts should be to focus on the deeper reasons behind the issue.

Was the manner in which the girl’s private grief, impotence, and despair put on display for all viewers, without her consent and regardless of any sympathy in consonance with this deeper motivation? In the very act of deploring the tragedy, the underlying motivation behind the Guwahati video seems to be an appalling curiosity and morbid delight in the tragedies of others. And, therein lies the problem. In fact, such depiction is routine in the media. We have seen in the past journalists asking someone whose friends or parents have been killed in a plane crash “how they feel”!

On rightness

Although most journalists would consider it to be their professional duty to catch such events on tape and later put them up for display, journalistic professionalism need not come apart from ethical responsibility. As Oakley and Cocking claimed in regard to virtue ethics and professional roles, “goodness is prior to rightness” — (Oakley, J. & Cocking, D. (2001), Virtue ethics and professional roles). Rightness, properly understood, can only be derivative of goodness, insofar as what is right must be based on what is valuable in regard to certain notions of the good.

Similarly, journalistic rightness needs to be understood in the larger context of the role the media plays in our society. Given that the news media's function, at least in part, is to seek out and expose wrongdoing, it had better not be guilty of the very same sins it exposes in others if it is to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. That is, journalists and the news media must themselves consistently aim to respect the very same ethical standards of behaviour that they demand others should adhere to. A proportionate response in the Guwahati case would have been to focus only on the wrongdoer’s faces in the video, and try to protect the girl by either volunteering assistance or immediately informing the police.

I am not denying that probably many critics of media practices (including me) may possess only a superficial grasp of the realities of journalistic and media practices. Hence media criticism and ethical debate tends to contradict the complex cases and dilemmas that actually arise. But this is not to deny the point and purpose of critical reflection. Undoubtedly, it is the job of the journalists to depict and report facts as they happen. But, in doing so, they should not lose sight of the bigger question — what is their investment as human beings? Shouldn’t journalists be defined by who they are intrinsically, rather than what they do?

Kevin Carter ended his life grappling with the same questions.

(Karan Singh Tyagi is an associate attorney at an international law firm in Paris.)

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