I was interested by a discussion of the following question in journalistic ethics: how far is it acceptable to step beyond the neutrality of the reporter's role on a story one is covering, by contributing humanitarian help? The question is posed in the first instance with reference to the actions of Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter, who offered to pay for the annual school fees of a young girl, Lovely Avelus, saved from the Haitian earthquake of January 2010. But Jillian Bell - author of the article here - also goes on to write about the issue in more general terms, eliciting the views of others within the profession.
This is how she delineates the problem:
Journalists have traditionally been instructed to turn their own emotions off and avoid getting personally involved with the story they're covering, no matter what tragedies they witness. For example, the Canadian Association of Journalists' ethics guidelines call for journalists to be "fair and impartial observers," while in the U.S. the Society of Professional Journalists' ethical code mandates that reporters "be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know."
The rationale for this disinterested approach is that if reporters get too emotionally invested, it gets harder to report without bias. You're supposed to gather the facts, write the story, and move on...
But try as they might to be perfectly objective, journalists are human beings. What if their sense of humanity outstrips their journalistic training? What if sometimes it's impossible not to step in and help?
I have neither journalistic training nor knowledge of the codes of practice taught to or influencing the conduct of working journalists, but I'll offer a few observations nonetheless, just on the basis of thinking about the question cold. I'd welcome the reactions of journalist friends and/or readers.
The first thing that occurs to me is that objectivity, impartiality and fairness in covering a story are not the same thing as complete emotional detachment from its content. One wouldn't expect someone reporting a massacre to have no feelings about it one way or another - provided that those feelings didn't influence them to misreport the facts so far as they had been able to ascertain them. Equally, I'm not aware that journalists reporting on conflicts about which opinion is very divided are expected to have no opinions themselves. Objectivity and impartiality in this domain consist in not allowing one's opinions to sway one in the presentation of the events one is reporting. (And this is an ideal, it should be said, that is often fallen short of in practice.) So, the engagement of a journalist's humane feelings on a story she is covering doesn't seem to me to be a special case, but rather an instance of a much more general danger: namely, that of letting personal opinion or prejudice distort one's reporting of the facts.
Second, I don't think this difficulty is essentially changed by a reporter's decision to help one (or some) of the victims of a disaster or tragedy that he is writing about. Whether he only feels sympathy for them or goes on to act on that sympathy by offering help, either way it doesn't rule out the possibility of his reporting on their situation in an impartial way. Maybe objectivity is more difficult the more engaged one is, but simply by not giving (helping etc) one doesn't guarantee anything in the way of objectivity anyway, and so I don't see why a line should be drawn against doing so.
Third, the ethical requirements of professional journalism surely can't, in all circumstances, override the ordinary impulses of human compassion. One would hope that at least in some, more extreme, circumstances they would not. Should a journalist not save someone else's life if she can and is uniquely placed in being able to do so, just because that someone else is part of her current 'mission' as a reporter? I presume the right answer is that she should, and I can't see why help at lower levels than life-threatened ones should be any different. If this creates the possibility of clashing interests for the journalist, these can be stated upfront, with others left to judge whether they have affected journalistic judgement.
Finally, I wonder if this is a problem specific to journalism anyway. Other professions are also peopled by people, that is, by individuals whose professional standards will sometimes rub up against the expectations on them as morally conscious human beings. May a lawyer feel sympathy for a client? Presumably yes, provided that he behaves properly towards all his clients. May an academic who studies world poverty and teaches about it feel - even passionately - about those who suffer its effects? May she contribute to relevant charities? The answers, I think, are obvious. They won't acquit the academic in question from the need to produce work that measures up to academically demanding standards of objectivity.