Finding Yohanita

This week in lecture, we watched the documentary “Reporter,” which follows New York Times columnist Nick Kristof on his trip to report on ethnic conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As Katherine had mentioned in her blogpost previewing what to expect this week, the film didn’t just expose the horrors of war and genocide in the African nation, but it also showed the dilemma of how to approach exposing those horrors to the public as a journalist.

The first of many ethical dilemmas that struck me was Kristof’s method of trying to find the most extreme cases of inhumanity and suffering in order to write his column. However, unlike some of the other students in the class, my problem was never with the idea of pursuing these extreme cases and letting just as serious, but more common struggles, slide into the background. It’s true, as he had clarified, that the way to get readers’ attention for a compelling story is to go for something a little more shocking in terms of severity.

My problem, or rather puzzlement, was how he could decide what the “best” worst case was and decide to settle on that. I wondered if, since he has been in many similar situations throughout his reporting career, that it was something as simple as instinct or intuition that he had acquired over the years. It did, of course, seem a little cold to defer all the tragic cases before him in pursuit of something a little more distressing. But as we mentioned in class, human resources and time limitations called for extremities to produce a compelling piece.

Another reaction I had to the film in terms of journalism ethics was deciding how far is too far in terms of helping the subject. This moment came when the team of reporters had come upon Yohanita, a woman who was in severely poor health from starvation and infection.

The tension between Leana acting as medical provider and Kristof wanting to move on to find another story was intensely portrayed during their deliberation of how to make sure the woman was provided medical attention. The situation finally boiled down to taking Yohanita to the hospital. Furthermore, I was a little taken aback by the way Kristof resigned to helping the woman by also paying for her medical treatment, as well as providing a fellow neighbor with money in order to get back to her village from the hospital.

It was at this moment that it felt almost as if Kristof found relief in being able to help this group of people by ensuring that they received medical attention. I can’t help but wonder if at this point he also felt more compelled to write about Yohanita, though initially hesitant, because he now felt invested in seeing her outcome.

I think part of this ambivalence is the reasoning why Kristof strays away from being labeled as an “advocacy journalist.” He said that he feels the notion of advocacy journalism is coming into a situation with a pre-existing agenda and trying to find evidence to support personal beliefs. Perhaps that’s why, whether we want to believe it or not, he also claims to be able to listen to horrific stories of loss and tragedy with a feeling of desensitization.

Whether we believe it or not, however, may also reflect how we feel as journalists and our responsibility to the people. If we feel that we can objectively report on an issue, no matter how jarring, to shed light on the matter without emotional or psychological attachment is related to what we think is the role of the journalist. However, in the cases such that Kristof experiences, it is part of his personal experience as witness to these crimes against humanity that fuel his column as a means to indirectly call people to action, or at least grab their attention at their failure to do so.

That also goes back to the idea that we’ve been talking about since introductory journalism principle courses. While journalists may strive for objectivity and limitations of bias in their reporting, it’s impossible (and perhaps robotic/insensitive) to completely have no opinion on the matter. And if the point of the piece is to bring attention to a problem of similar degree as Kristof’s columns, maybe it’s that little spark of passion and anger that gets the message across so much more clearly.

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