Western reporters in Africa struggle over when to help
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A major reason for this standard: "If you operate under real strict boundaries that you absolutely can't help anyone, you create this crisis of conscience that will drive good reporters from the business," she says, adding, "I don't think you have to separate being human from being a reporter."Skip to next paragraph
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Kevin Carter took his famous photograph in Sudan in 1993. After years of covering Africa's most-terrible conflicts - and amid intense questions about why he didn't help the Sudanese child - he committed suicide in 1994.
"What we all hold against that guy is that he just walked away after taking the picture," says another Africa-based Western reporter who asked not to be named. "And that's probably ultimately what he held against himself." For that very reason, this reporter only helps people, by buying food or other supplies, after an interview is over. If, later, he thinks of another question, he won't return to ask it. "I consider the case closed," he says. The danger of mixing the professional and more-personal relationship, he says, "is too acute."
Even still, he's reluctant to discuss his modus operandi with his editors: "If they said, 'Don't ever [give money or buy food] again,' I don't know how I would do my job,' " he says, adding, "I'm not prepared to walk away and let somebody die."
Yet, except for extreme cases of famine or disease, there's also the tough question of how best to help the world's poorest. Any reporter doling out money knows the risks: The cash might not be spent wisely. It won't make a long-term difference. It could perpetuate dependence on foreign donors and aid groups. It will spark jealousy among the recipient's peers. For those reasons, even giving freely isn't often a liberating act.
"I didn't feel any warm rosy glow of altruistic delight by sending those kids to school," says Nolen, knowing their overall plight wouldn't improve dramatically. But in the end, giving them the money "was better than not doing it."
In the pages of The Baltimore Sun in February, readers met Joshua Masekoameng, a studious South African teen who has no electricity in his house and does his homework by candlelight. Some readers wanted to help. So the paper's Africa reporter, Scott Calvert, found out which study guides the boy needed, bought them, delivered them to the boy, and is getting reimbursed by readers. One reader is even starting a fundraising drive for Joshua's education. In all, Mr. Calvert estimates that he has spent several hours on responding to reader requests on this story alone.
Indeed, reporters in Africa spend many hours trying - sometimes in vain - to help readers help the people they've read about. "People send me cash or checks made out to random Sudanese villagers," says Stephanie Nolen of Canada's Globe and Mail, "or e-mails requesting bank details of random Sudanese villagers." Rural Sudan has no mail service, so Nolen can't mail the check. Then, there's not often a bank. Even if there were, it couldn't take a Canadian check. If she's going to the area again, she'll take cash. But she often ends up returning the check and suggesting the reader donate to an aid group.
Sometimes newspapers figure out a way to put readers' donations to work. After running a story last year about a woman in Malawi surviving on $1 a day, The Christian Science Monitor received some $6,000 from readers to help her. By partnering with the aid group CARE International, the Monitor was able to help set up a fund that's now paying for six girls in the village, including the woman's daughter, to go to school. A follow-up story in January 2006 led to about another $4,000 in donations. The freelance author of the first story, Xanthe Scharff, is now setting up a nonprofit group to help in the village. (http://people.csail.mit.edu/dfhuynh/projects/age/)
Others see these kinds of responses as too touchy-feely - and counterproductive for journalism. "I don't fundamentally see our purpose as to alleviate suffering in the world," says one Western reporter based in South Africa, who asked not to be named. He declines to be an intermediary between readers and subjects for cash or gifts. Rather, he'll suggest an aid group that can help. This enables him to preserve independence, which, he argues, is key to the profession's long-term success. "We're some of the few noncombatants in the world's struggles. Our job is to be the eyes and ears, not actors."