“How many of you here volunteer to donate blood?” This question wouldn’t have drawn any attention in, say, an emergency hospital setting, but it was unexpected at a press conference. The person asking the question was a Central government Minister, who had just announced a series of ‘humanitarian programmes’ to mark Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 70th birthday celebrations on September 17, 2020.
The act of donating blood is undoubtedly noble as it helps save lives. Most blood donors do this voluntarily. But for journalists sitting there, the question suddenly threw up a dilemma. We were there to report the programmes being announced, not volunteer to participate in them. Some of us wondered, how much involvement with a story is too much? Should we become part of the news that we were reporting? And what causes demand a journalist to switch roles from reporter to someone involved in the story? The tussle between professional ethics and empathy, though these categories are not mutually exclusive, is something journalists face with every story.
The blood donation programme, to be organised by the Union Health Ministry, aims to bring over one lakh units of blood into blood banks across the country. As soon as he made the announcement, the Minister wanted a show of hands to know how many would be willing to be part of this donation. Following the question, hands shot up and some judgmental eyes scanned the room, which was packed with reporters and Ministry staff. The Minister presented the programme as “our” contribution to the humanitarian work being done by the Prime Minister.
It is true that the line between reporter and subject gets crossed sometimes and the heart does take over the head. Reporters sometimes sit down to wipe the tears of their interviewees. Many of my reporter friends have emptied their purses and lunch boxes for their interviewees. Some have even been advocates of causes, asking higher authorities to help a person or group.
But does that allow us to do our job of reporting ‘as it is’? More important, is there a correct answer to these questions? In this context, who did the right thing: the journalists who raised their hands or those who did not?
In a world where the form and flavour of news is rapidly changing, choices also make news. The famous example of this is the South African photojournalist Kevin Carter. Carter photographed ‘The Struggling Girl’, which showed a child, later revealed to be a boy, slumped on dry grass in hunger, while being watched keenly by a vulture. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photograph. But he found himself, not the child, being the subject of discussion, with people asking why he did not help the emaciated child.
This dilemma is often at the heart of human-interest stories that journalists report, whether big or small. Our professional ethics demand that we report honestly, accurately and without manipulating the story, getting involved with the subject or taking sides. Besides this, reporters often work with the handicap of not being aware of the entire story when we walk into one.
Listening to our gut feeling and thinking with our heart is what we often do initially, but training and experience thankfully kick in soon enough. Not taking sides and not getting involved is an art that journalists have to master. Forcing someone on a job to take a side or get involved isn’t a welcome move.