I love Jeff Jarvis.
I follow his blog and his Twitter feed, and I honestly wish more news executives would too. His ideas on the future of media and the role of the Internet in that future have deeply influenced my views.
But sometimes, Jarvis is dead wrong.
Friday afternoon, Jarvis launched a tirade on Twitter in response to a statement from the Society of Professional Journalists on reporters’ conduct in Haiti. In it, they urged reporters not to forget that their job is to accurately tell the story of what’s happening on the ground in Haiti.
Undoubtedly, journalists walk a fine line to balance their professional responsibilities with their humanity when covering disasters. SPJ does not nor would it ever criticize or downplay the humane acts journalists are performing in Haiti. But news organizations must use caution to avoid blurring the lines between being a participant and being an objective observer.
But Jarvis wasn’t pleased.
To him, as indicated by his frantic tweeting, the SPJ’s statement represents an affront to the industry’s progress and a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the monkish stance of old media.
jeffjarvis: My view of the SPJ has long been Groucho Marx’s about clubs.
jeffjarvis: SPJ should stand for the Society of the Priesthood of Journalism. Self-annointed.
jeffjarvis: It’s even worse that a society of “journalists” sends out a fucking *press release.” Society of self-promoters is more like it.
First, it pains me that Jarvis, a journalism professor with a wide following, chose to argue his points with hyperbole and distortion. These are not the tools of a responsible journalist, but of a blowhard with an axe to grind.
But that’s not the issue here.
Jarvis missed the core point of the SPJ statement. It wasn’t that you shouldn’t cry or shouldn’t be human. And it surely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t help anyone. There’s a big difference between helping someone in need and filming yourself helping someone in need, then blasting that fact as the headline at the top of the hour.
At the end of the day, the week or the month, reporters will leave the destruction and death in Haiti and go back to the U.S., where they live comfortably. Now there’s nothing wrong with that.
But they’re not the story, Haiti is.
The danger of inserting yourself into the story in a disaster is that you can lose the ability to determine what the real story is — and as a journalist, that’s your job.
Without reporters, no one outside of that island will know the extent of the devastation. Without reporters, fewer people will mobilize to help. In that sense, the journalist’s role in disaster is critical.
The reason I stand so strongly behind the SPJ’s statement is that I’ve heard firsthand the problems caused by journalists too focused on self-promotion, too wrapped up to find the real stories.
Alex Furini, a volunteer EMT who’s been working the night shift at the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, spoke with me via satellite phone Thursday, expressing frustration at problems he says are costing lives.
At night the doctors leave, and he mans a hospital of more than 1,300 patients with only a team of about 20 medical workers. Because of that lack of staffing, people are dying from neglect.
“It’s like walking into Auschwitz, man. You know all those pictures of Auschwitz where you have all those people on bunks just staring at the camera?” Furini said. “I walked in last night at four in the morning — I was there all night — there are people just staring at you moaning. I’m one man. I’m not even a doctor, I’m just an EMT.”
The supplies are there, as are the people necessary to do these jobs. But Furini said many of them follow the journalists, making it hard for reporters to see what’s really going on past the reach of their camera lighting.
But there are plenty of reporters doing an excellent job in maintaining the clarity they need to report effectively. Anderson Cooper even highlighted the plight Furini’s group is facing when it comes to inadequate supplies.
“Lots and lots of people are dying because the supplies that are here aren’t getting to us. But when we make a stink in front of the news crews, they’re here in five minutes,” Furini said. “They set their own example. If they could get us the supplies we need in five minutes of us complaining to the news crew … Thank God for Anderson Cooper, or probably, there’d be another 30 people dead today.”
There is an unavoidable uncertainty principle inherent in any and all forms of journalism. The minute we point our cameras and our recorders at something, it changes, however slightly.
But we must always do our best to maintain the clarity we need to recognize these changes and respond to them accordingly. It’s not easy and we’re not perfect, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
I asked Furini, who also worked with recovery efforts in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, how all this is affecting him, how it’s affecting his team.
“You just don’t think about it,” Furini said Tuesday. “If you stop to think, someone else is going to die.”
So they keep working, for 28 hours straight in some cases, and do what they can to save lives. They steel themselves, as best they can, to do their job to the best of their ability.
Given the challenges these emergency workers face, why is it acceptable to adopt a different standard for journalists?
That’s precisely what the SPJ is arguing. Jarvis was just too wrapped up in his own narrative to notice.
UPDATE: Schwitzer spoke with NPR’s On the Media regarding this issue. Gazette Communications Innovation Coach Steve Buttry also provided an incredibly thoughtful analysis coming from the other side of this argument that actually prompted a response from Jarvis.