A Good Story

“Telling Their Story,” from Discover the Journey

A friend in New York forwarded me this MediaStorm Blog post about ethical guidelines for reporting on children in crisis.  It’s a valuable resource and worth reading for anyone who has read my Foreign Policy article “Children of War,” which was a critique of how public affairs professionals use imagery involving children to promote and illustrate the causes we are involved in.

There is clearly overlap between these two disciplines, particularly as it relates to ethics, but there are important distinctions as well.  My approach related primarily to public affairs and how these images are used in political communications.  This is distinct from journalism.  My secondary concern was how combat camera crews — military photographers, who are not journalists per se but function very similarly to them in a military environment — fit into this.

MediaStorm cites the “Telling Their Story” manifesto (pictured above) produced by Discover the Journey, a group of journalists dedicated (in their words) to “speak up for children in crisis” and “insure justice for children in crisis by advocating for intervention across cultures in Love”.

The manifesto is important and valuable, citing UNICEF’s guidelines for reporting on children.  I don’t like to quibble with those who are clearly doing difficult and important work in challenging places, but I take issue with the fact that the clear priority in the manifesto is the “story,” placed first before all other considerations for the child’s welfare. Since Discover the Journey as an organization obviously blurs the distinction between objective journalism and advocacy, the importance of the story — in practical effect, the “sell” — is a concerning aspect of the manifesto. It suggests that the totality of the child’s life narrative — “the story of one to represent the stories of many,” in the words of the manifesto — and over which he has no control, possesses the greater weight than the dictates of his individual dignity and privacy.  Good journalists always want the perfect story, and moralizing it as a “good” as the manifesto does only makes it more likely that it will be told at the expense of other considerations.

The journalist Katherine Boo, who has written seriously about poverty, specifically dismisses the manifesto’s notion of an individual standing in for the whole.  “[N]obody is representative. That’s just narrative nonsense,” she recently told Guernica magazine. “People may be part of a larger story or structure or institution, but they’re still people.” It’s something to think about, especially when we’re talking about children.