Sunday, August 27, 2006

What do we owe those in need?

Michael Wines, in the NYT:

No Westerner can travel the less developed world, at least outside the lobbies of the three- and four-star hotels that now populate most major cities, and not be struck by the immense gulf between their own personal wealth and the utter destitution of the masses around them.

How to respond to it is a moral dilemma that lurks in the background of many interviews. Reputable journalists are indoctrinated with the notion that they are observers — that their job is to tell a story, not to influence it. So what to do when an anguished girl tells a compelling story about her young brother, lying emaciated on a reed mat, dying for lack of money to by anti-AIDS drugs? Is it moral to take the story and leave when a comparatively small gift of money would keep him alive? If morality compels a gift, what about the dying mother in the hut next door who missed out on an interview by pure chance? Or the three huts down the dirt path where, a nurse says, residents are dying for lack of drugs? Why are they less deserving?

In reputable journalism, paying for information is a cardinal sin, the notion being that a source who will talk only for money is likely to say anything to earn his payment. So what to do when a penniless father asks why he should open his life free to an outsider when he needs money for food? How to react to the headmistress who says that white people come to her school only to satisfy their own needs, and refuses to talk without a contribution toward new classrooms? Is that so different from interviewing a Washington political consultant over a restaurant lunch on my expense account?

If it is, which is more ethical?

Set aside, for the moment, the lazy preumption that no "Westerners" themselves face dire need. It's a good, and a difficult, question, one that surely transcends this discussion of journalistic ethics: what is our obligation, individually and collectively, to relieve the suffering of others?

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