Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Western reporters in Africa struggle over when to help

By Abraham McLaughlin | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Daily journalism involves many dilemmas. But Western reporters covering developing countries often face unique conundrums: A little humanity - just the change in their pockets - can sometimes feed 10 or 20 people.
Such giving can violate a basic tenet of journalism: Observe, don't engage. It's a cornerstone of the effort to stay objective. But Western reporters often ask themselves: Should I help anyway?

One Western reporter, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, recalls doing a story on a man in Afghanistan. In 2002, the man was laboring hard to rebuild his mud house, which had been destroyed during a war. But he couldn't afford a few wooden poles for a roof.

Furthermore, his young son was in a hospital and couldn't be released until there was a house to come home to. "I never give to anyone who asks for money," says the reporter, but in rare cases, she does give. Even then, though, "I take great pains to ensure it does not come from me directly." In this case, she sent her Afghan translator back with the cash - and told him to tell the man it had come from an anonymous donor who'd heard about his case.

Different standards

But one expert on journalism ethics argues reporters working in poor countries should not feel bad about helping people, and need not go to such lengths to disguise their efforts to help. Standards are different in poor-world contexts, says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla. "In the US, you can tell a [poor] family how to get food stamps or how to access social services," she says. But "the safety net in the US is much more secure for the poorest of the poor than it is in Swaziland," for instance.

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