Reporter's Notebook

The art and science of the interview

Posts Tagged ‘Corruption

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.

The Bottom Line

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Rain Stick

“Nattering Nabobs of Negativity”.

I was a kid when Spiro Agnew spoke those words as he resigned from the Office of the Vice President in 1973.  Mr. Agnew had been accused of corruption and allowing his office to be influnced by outside monied interests. Specifically, according to Wikipedia, Agnew was investigated by the United States Attorney’s office for the District of Maryland, and charged with having accepted bribes totaling more than $100,000 while holding office as Baltimore County Executive, Governor of Maryland, and Vice President.

But instead of speaking to that responsibly, he did in his press conference what a surprising number of the high profile accused (and convicted) for mostly any crime tend to do.  He talked about what he felt had been done to him by the media.  Agnew implied that the news media had used their role to turn public opinion against him.

The news media is a lot like a rain stick.  Kids who’ve been to camp know its a hollow tube, taped at both ends and filled with rice or gravel.  When you shake it, its supposed to sound like rain.  Two things about a rain stick.  First, it doesn’t shake itself.  And second, no matter how much noise it makes, the noisemakers stays inside the tube.

People accuse the news media of causing problems by amplifying the small into the ginormous.  But that’s not how news works.  The public have to believe there is something there to wonder about in the first place. They have to care.  And although  the news is very, very good at finding those little things to be examined, if people aren’t really interested, reporters don’t follow up and the story eventually fizzles.  In other words, people have to want the stick shaken.

Don’t believe me?  Look back at all of the times reporters have been kidnapped.  If there is ever a instance when the media would push a story to drive a story, it’s then.  And even then, it was hard to keep the public interested in media’s efforts to get one of it’s own released.  By contrast, when a journalist is accused of unethical behavior, that captures everyone’s attention because people are thinking, “That journalist has been in my house making suggestions to me and my family about what we should do or how we should live.  They’re always supposed to be right, ethical, above board”.

That can feel like a betrayal which is much more personal.  And curiously, even some of those journalists, if they find themselves muttering Agnew’s defense, know its public interest, not necessarily their colleagues, driving the story.  Yes, the media does eat, chew and spit out a lot, but its a diet largely dictated by the public.  If that wasn’t true, newsrooms everywhere wouldn’t be filled with image consultants, social media accounts and rapidly spinning revolving doors.

So when Governor Kitzhaber said in his statement of resignation yesterday that “it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved”, he is, in some ways, repeating the sentiments of those who don’t see that although the news media isn’t necessary the light of day, it can be the magnifying glass.

But it isn’t holding itself.