Journalistic Ethics Without God

Jill McGivering is a BBC correspondent who, nearly two weeks ago, reported on the tragic floods in Pakistan that left eight million people without food and shelter. Apparently her involvement has caused her to experience a small crisis of conscience—all because she helped someone.

While covering the massive suffering in the city of Sukkur, someone led her to a young woman who had given birth on the road. The mother appeared in shock and the newborn girl was in critical need of medical care—apparently near death. McGivering tracked down a quite-overwhelmed Dr. Fahim at a medical camp and implored him to see her. He later went and tended to the baby, whose mother had named her Samina, and when McGivering checked up on the mother and child the next day she was elated to find the infant in a vastly improved condition. She expressed her elation in a story that attracted a great deal of media and public attention—attention which seems to have prompted her pangs of conscience.

On the one hand, McGivering writes,

The report I filed on baby Samina met with a tremendous response. Suddenly she seemed to be a metaphor for the general suffering.

I was contacted by friends and colleagues and complete strangers.

An international agency got in touch, offering to help the family. Baby Samina was becoming, unwittingly, a poster girl for the floods.

So what’s the problem?

In some ways, that is wonderful. But it also made me feel very uncomfortable.

She found someone in desperate need, alerted someone who could help, and saw a human life saved. How is this a problem?

I see my job as to bear witness in a tragedy and to report – but not to interfere. I had urged that doctor to treat baby Samina.

He may have saved her, but was it at the expense of another patient? Is it unethical to attract resources to one family, when millions of others may be equally deserving?

I think I understand McGivering’s explanation of her dilemma, and I am trying to empathize with it, but I have to ask: is it a real dilemma?

I suppose we are expected to assume here that she somehow used her status as a foreign journalist to enlist the aid of Dr. Fahim. Even so, it is difficult to find any ethical conundrum in that. Furthermore, why assume that Dr. Fahim was forced to neglect someone else in order to take care of baby Samina?

But even more importantly: what right does Ms. McGivering have to assume the responsibility for Dr. Fahim’s decision? If she withheld information about the baby from the doctor, the baby probably would have died; but once she informed Dr. Fahim, it became his decision instead of hers. Should such decisions be left in the hands of journalists in these situations (who would end up de facto making them by withholding the information) or by trained physicians? I think that question practically answers itself!

McGivering’s “to report – but not to interfere” rationale reminds me of an old television program I watched as a child: Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It always bothered me that Marlin Perkins and his crew could sit by and dispassionately watch without lifting a finger to help or even giving the slightest warning as some predator stalked an animal family (usually of peaceful herbivores), separated one if its  young from the herd, and brought it down with a savage bite to the jugular. Of course, like all analogies this one is not a perfect fit, since even predators have families to feed, but I think it still illustrates my point quite well: does the journalist’s role as observer and reporter take priority over her responsibility before God to love her neighbor as herself?


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