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Western reporters in Africa struggle over when to help

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 6, 2006


It was three school-age siblings, orphaned by AIDS and fending for themselves in rural Swaziland, who were the last straws. They finally made Canadian reporter Stephanie Nolen question the age-old journalistic principle of not giving help to people she encounters while reporting.

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Every morning these kids, whom Ms. Nolen met last year, would put on their school uniforms and stand outside their home, watching other children go to school. They couldn't follow because they didn't have money for school fees.

Years of seeing such situations finally got to Nolen. During a "somewhat sleepless night," she argued with herself: "I can't do this, it's a slippery slope." But in the morning she made a beeline for an ATM and withdrew $150, enough for all three to go to school for a year.

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?

The questions have current relevance: The recent Oscar- nominated documentary, "The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club," details a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer's decline to suicide after photographing a starving African child with a vulture waiting ominously in the background. Even Mr. Carter's mother wondered why he hadn't helped the child.

For Nolen, that day in Swaziland marked a turning point, even though she never even wrote about those orphaned kids. Her new policy is: "There is no policy," says Nolen, who has covered Africa for Canada's Globe and Mail for seven years - and won two National Newspaper Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Since Swaziland, she's become more willing to try to help those in need. That doesn't mean, however, that she violates the "really strict journalistic principle" prohibiting anything that smacks of buying peoples' stories - such as offering money before an interview.

Indeed, with a yawning gap in economic disparity between Western reporters and the world's poor, the danger is that interviewees will mislead or embellish, hoping it will lead to financial benefit. That would interfere with journalists' prime objective: Getting the truth.

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.

Plan to help?

In fact, she says, reporters should actually plan to help - and even include such donations in their budget. After discussing the issue with editors, reporters should "begin with the premise that, in addition to paying your translators, you should expect to leave money, food, or other items behind for people you encounter." If recipients are included in a reporter's story, however, the donation should be mentioned in the article - for transparency's sake.