Ethics angle of an event: To be a journalist, to be human

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On October 22nd, I was at the Boston Globe for the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)’s New England Driving Short Course. It was a program featuring talks and sharing sessions by experienced photojournalists and visual storytellers of the region, such as John Tlumacki, who covered the Boston Marathon bombing and Jessica Rinaldi who won 2016’s Pulitzer in Feature Photography.

Jessica Rinaldi won the Pulitzer in Feature Photography for her work in The life and times of Strider Wolf, written by fellow Globe reporter Sarah Schweitzer. The story followed the life of Strider Wolf, who was abused as a young child, and his grandparents (the Grants) who became the main guardians of Strider and his brother, Gallagher. It is a story of hardship in rural Maine, centered around Strider and his family’s struggles and little joys as they moved through the maze of trauma and poverty. Rinaldi and Schweitzer spent 5 months with the family, staying a few days at a time like embed journalists, arriving at the campground where they lived early in the morning and staying till they went to sleep.

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In an interview on Longreads, Schweitzer brings up transparency when talking about approaching the Grants for the story and how they would conduct documentary work that entailed being so physically present in the life of this family. She said, “I tried to be transparent and explained that Jess and I wanted to be flies on the wall for as much time as they could stand us. I said that there might be times when they’d need privacy and that they should feel like they could say they needed space. Lanette and Larry were tentative, which I totally understood. We were strangers asking to come into their home. But they got to know me and Jess, and after a while they (more or less) forgot about us when we were there.”

I believe the principles of privacy and respecting the subjects we cover, especially the subjects we cover so closely on an extended period of time, is an important ethical issue that deserves much thought because there is a strong aspect of humanity involved. Journalists must always be careful and conscious of how their presence and their work affects the people we write about or photograph. We require their permission and they deserve our respect. The witnessing and recording of people’s lives and events that are raw and tragic is a responsibility that requires balancing what it means to be a journalist and what it means to be a human being. As much as we want to get the story, it is less important than making sure the subjects we cover are comfortable with our methods of unearthing and arguably even presenting that story. At the Boston Globe event, many questions were posed to Rinaldi on this issue of being human. Her reply was: You’re not a friend. You’re a journalist. But in journalism, you have to be human first

How we carry out our job as journalists and how we interact with our subjects also affects the trust we hope to gain from them in such a short amount of time. Journalists are basically strangers being allowed into the lives of other people to uncover significant instances of humanity and/or inhumanity. Rinaldi and Schweitzer were able to produce such a raw narrative that uncovered several layers of the human experience because they were able to gain this trust.

Stories such as Strider’s are told to show the intensity of human experience as lived by other people – their very real struggles but also moments of happiness.

On why she did this story and how she chose to document their life:

“I thought, this is awful but I want to explain what’s happening.”

“Nobody’s life is all misery.  It is important to show the joy.”

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