Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Something’s Burning

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Something's Burning

Andrew Jennings is a Scottish investigative reporter who has been following the mismanagement and corruption at the European soccer agency, FIFA, for nearly 15 years. In a recent interview with NPR’s Melissa Block, he said he provided the FBI with internal financial documents in 2009 in an effort to help the Americans prosecute FIFA’s wrongdoing. The FBI, along with Interpol and a number of other law enforcement agencies around the world began arresting FIFA executives on Monday, June 1st, 2014.

Ms. Block asked Mr. Jennings if he felt he had violated his journalist integrity by providing those documents. Mr. Jennings adamantly said no, saying FIFA is a corrupt organization, everyone knew it was corrupt and little was being accomplished in the way of internal reform, which he believed it needed desperately. This again brings up the question of how much should a journalist insert themselves into the story and it reminds me of a story from J-school which is built on much historical precedence.

A photographer is photographing a protestor who is preparing to self-immolate himself. What should the photographer do? Should he keep taking pictures as the person sets themselves on fire in the most desperate act of political protest, or should he drop the camera and save the person from what would certainly be a graphic, horrible and painful death? According to Wikipedia, journalist and photographer Malcolm Brown won the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for choosing to take just such a photo. In it, a Vietnamese monk named Thich Quang Duc set himself ablaze in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

There have been 133 self-immolations for political reasons and 10 for economic reasons since Brown’s photo. Journalism has since weighed in on the journalist’s responsibility to intervene. The Society of Professional Journalists cautions journalists in a release from January 2010: “Report the story; don’t become a part of it,”  Even in a crisis, the SPJ says  journalists must be objective.  Actions the SPJ defines as not objective include advocacy, self-promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story, or creating news events.

But Roy Peter Clark, a Pulitzer Prize winning author who recently wrote for the journalism ethics organization, the Poynter Institute, said “That standard – to observe, cover, but not intervene – is surely not absolute.” He continues, “There are those rare moments when a reporter (or other professional, such as a psychiatrist) realizes that life or public safety is on the line.  That professional may choose to assume a different role, to put on a citizen’s hat rather than a journalist’s”. Journalists have a responsibility to tell the story in a way that insures their credibility by not showing bias. But they also have a responsibility to be human beings.  That can be a tricky wire to walk.

What is the life or public safety issue regarding FIFA?  Some have argued that the thousands of immigrant workers that have died in Qatar’s hellish heat as they prepare the country for a possibly ill-gotten 2022 World Cup tournament might be cause for intervention.  Others like Mr. Jennings, simply see organizations like FIFA stealing what is precious to the people, and believe the people don’t deserve to be lied to or stolen from.

“What would you do”, asks Mr. Clark, “if you saw someone trying to set himself on fire?  I would probably run for my own safety, yell like crazy, and point out the danger to others.  I know Good Samaritans, braver than I, who would try to stop the action.  I doubt I would take out my cell phone and make a video of the self-immolation”.

Mr. Jennings made a similar choice. Under extraordinary circumstances, he heeded the call of the FBI to help them put out a different kind of fire.

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