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The Journalist’s Burden

March 15, 2009

I was watching the first season of the unbelievably wonderful Showtime television adaptation of Chicago Public Radio’s “This American Life,” when I heard the story of Marcus Halevi. The act focused on Halevi’s life as a photojournalist and the memories about his job that still haunts them. One of those memories, the one that haunts him most deeply was a picture he took while working as a photographer for a newspaper. 

Every reporter or photographer who covers these kinds of stories (as I do) has had the conversation with themselves that Halevi had on that bluff. Thankfully, many of them never have to make that split-second decision and decide whether to help or stay behind and do your job. Many criticize Halevi, and later Halevi seems to question his own decision that day, for “letting a woman drown” just to get a good picture, just to sell some papers.

As journalists we often see things we wish we hadn’t and ask questions that many people, including our readers, viewers and ourselves, would rather not know the answers to. I don’t second guess Halevi’s decision not to help. As a journalist, my first job was working in Destin, Florida, walking stretches of sugar-white sand of a coastline fraught with rip tides. Having fairly close relationships with a number of beach umbrellas attendants, lifeguards and firefighters, I learned that often times those who go in after someone who is drowning are often killed themselves and then someone must go in after that person and so on and so forth. Whether that was Halevi’s reasoning that stormy day, no one can say for sure. But I find the idea that because someone is a journalist or someone is a photographer that they were complicit in the death of an innocent person just to get a good photographer insulting beyond reproach. There are those in this business who relish the sorrow, pain and misfortune of others for their own professional gain but that is, in my experience, most certainly the exception rather than the rule. As someone who has gotten into my car after an assignment and fought back tears or just weeped openly, I can tell you that this job gets to you and stays with you.

You never forget the stories you cover, the things people say to you and the things you witness with a notebook in one hand and a pen in the other. Halevi certainly did not.

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