Jay Rosen hits me in the guts

I always find Jay Rosen of PressThink and NYU* interesting, often find him enlightening, sometimes find him original, and on rare occasions my mind gets expanded. This time he really gets me in the guts with this post about the borderline between observation and participation. Rosen tells the possibly true parable of a journalist invited to go along with a sniper during the seige of a city. The sniper gives the journalist the choice of which of two civilians to kill. The journalist chooses neither, so the sniper shoots them both.

The question this brings up for me is one of responsibility. What is the responsibility of the journalist, and how does it differ from his responsibility as a human being?

Rosen cites Michael Herr, author of Dispatches, with the idea that as a war correspondent, “you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” Whoa. To tell the truth, somewhere in my journalism-student-mind (as opposed to my media-theory-mind) I have certainly daydreamed about working in a war zone. Usually in the daydream, I am spending most of my time ducking bullets and diving on the ground, and then a Vietnamese officer shoots an informant in the street and I get the shot. This daydream is not unlike the Cameraman-for-NFL-Films idea I had for about five minutes while I was in film school. As in: it sounds great, but I’m not sure it’s really my goal in life.

Why couldn’t I work in a war zone? I’m not sure I could step away from the immediate situation and not grab for the gun to kill the sniper. Yes, the one sniper. Utilitarianism calls me nutty, reminds me that the good I can do with my pictures or my words will far outweigh the value of that one life (er, make that two).

SJSU Photojournalism Prof. Dennis Dunleavy recently blogged a bit about how journalists deal with death, and he linked to something that blew me away.

If I were the photographer in Sudan, documenting starvation and suffering, would I be able to walk away from the dying child while the vulture gets impatient?

No.

The bigger question: Does participating in that situation by saving a life compromise my journalistic integrity? Will my photos/words still be credible if I save her life? What if I carry her on my back to the next town, leave her at the hospital, and she dies the next day anyway. Then what good have I done? Have I only saved myself the suffering of knowing her fate?

I’m back in school because I believe that journalists, artists, and any creators of media need to take a greater responsibility for the effects of their work.

But what about these direct effects of objectivity? What about all the things I don’t participate in because I am a journalist? Is it relevant that I wouldn’t be there without my press pass? Maybe.

*NYU disclaimer: yeah, I’m an alumnus. So what. I don’t think taking over the university President’s office my senior year really qualifies me as a fan of their work. I also read cjrdaily.