To Help or To Report?

Occurring from August 23, 2005, to August 31, 2005, Hurricane Katrina was by far the deadliest and most destructive Atlantic tropical storm of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season. It is the costliest natural disaster, as well as one of the five deadliest hurricanes, in the history of the United States. At least 1,833 people died in the hurricane and in the floods that followed, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Total property damage was estimated at $108 billion.

As with any natural disaster, the goal of reporting about this storm and its victims was to deal with it as gently as possible. Nevertheless, several ethical controversies arose. One dealt with the fact that victims of the storm were being photographed in very compromising positions by journalists. For example, some people whose houses had flooded took refuge on the roofs of their houses until they could be rescued. Iconic photographs were taken of these people, often from helicopters, by journalists, which raised the question – should the journalists that spotted them be helping these unfortunate people, or should they simply be reporting the story?

The journalistic purpose of these photographs was obviously to document what was happening to people in New Orleans at the time and show the public just how bad the damage was and how it was truly affecting the citizens – to report on what was happening. What the photographers did in this case is exactly what journalists are meant to do; that is, to seek truth and report it. The ethical controversy in this case is not about what the journalists who took the photos did, but what they didn’t do. The actual publication of the photos did not have a negative affect on the stakeholders, who are, in this case, the people photographed. You could even argue that the publication of the photos had a positive affect.

The problem with the photos taken was this: if the journalists could fly over the flooded streets and snap pictures of helpless victims standing on their rooftops waving for help, couldn’t they also rescue the victims?

This is not an uncommon dilemma in disasters. Journalists, who are there to see the story happen, are often blamed by the public after they report on terrible things that happen but do not intervene to improve the situation. In my opinion, though it is on a very situation-to-situation basis, the general rule should be that journalists do not involve themselves in their stories. The main reason I have for this is that, although I would want to help someone if I saw them struggling, a journalist cannot always be sure that what they do will minimize harm. This is one of the core ethical rules of journalism. I believe this especially if what they are tempted to involve themselves in will directly affect the story they are covering.

Victims of Hurricane Katrina take refuge on a rooftop. (BBC)

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