I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, and for a whole load of reasons. It’s an issue I’ve seen rear its head again and again over the last 17 years and is perhaps more important now than ever – on a personal level but as a wider issue too.
For journalists, the focus is always on ‘the story’. Finding the story, telling the story, pursuing the story. As we all know, that ‘story’ can be an incident, a court case, an organisation, a scandal. Often, it can be a person – or people – and that’s where the endless pursuit of the story becomes problematic.
Because of course, people aren’t just stories. They’re human beings. Humans beings going through something so huge that it’s become newsworthy, which in turn often (but not always) means something bad has happened to them.
I think every journalist, myself included, would like to think we know where the line is. We know when regard and care for a fellow human being trumps ‘the story’ and means we take a step back. It’s not cut and dry in some cases, and we’re all aware that some people will try to leverage that ‘fellow human being’ argument purely to avoid being questions or held to account. But what about when it goes too far the other way?
The issue surfaces time and time again. The most recent example I can think of is seeing journalists report on migrants desperately cross the Channel in dangerous conditions – prompting many to question how they could look on, report on it, yet not do anything. How could ‘the story’ trump the most basic of human instincts – to help another human?
This isn’t a slight on other reporters. This isn’t about individuals. It’s about a profession that has to continually – on a personal and institutional level – balance the importance of the story with that of moral, ethical and basic human considerations. Sometimes that seems obvious, sometimes it’s not quite that easy to see or decide.
It happens when we least expect it. A friend goes through a sudden trauma – something you know is of media interest. What do you do? It’s not a simple case of acting as either the journalist or the friend. You’re both. But perhaps they need you to leave one of those behind. Or maybe they don’t. Maybe they want their story to be told, and to be told by someone they trust. Perhaps they don’t, and even the suggestion will destroy your friendship for ever.
It’s an endless balancing act. There are no rules. Sometimes we get it wrong. Sometimes we lose sight of what is important, and that is something that happens to every single human being every single day. But perhaps it’s the way we reflect on those errors of judgement, and endeavour to do it better next time, that counts.
It’s not something that can necessarily be regulated with a list of rules in black and white for exactly the nuanced reasons mentioned above. We could try, but there would inevitably cases that found themselves without a clear answer. But perhaps one step is for each and every one of us to think about where that line lies between the ‘story’ and our fellow humans and think about it for each and every situation we find ourselves in.
It’s only through doing that that we’ll avoid putting ourselves in situations where we realise the story did indeed trump our own morality. We’ll make mistakes, of course we will, but at least we’ll have tried.