Western reporters in Africa struggle over when to help

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.

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.

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."

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."

What some reporters in Africa decided to do

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."

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