Journalists witness the world around them. Unlike the average citizen, their work often requires them to be detached from what they see and to report dispassionately on the issues they cover. A failure to do so would compromise their role as an independent agent and potentially change the course of a story. If journalists are independent vessels meant to convey information, when, if ever, is it appropriate for them to intervene in a story?
Prof. Ivor Shapiro, a journalism ethics expert at Ryerson University, says journalists who are contemplating intervening in a story have to make careful decisions in a limited time window.
The line between citizen and journalist may not always be clear—and, as Shapiro notes, the Emerson case is an extreme situation. “Most journalists, most of the time, find that it is unnecessary for them to change history, that it’s okay for them to report history,” Shapiro says, although he notes that merely reporting on history has the potential to change it.
But in the event that a subject is at risk, are journalists still expected to set aside their humanity? What if changing history means saving a life?
In 2017 Jill Geisler, the chair in leadership and media integrity at Loyola University Chicago, wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that intervention should be thoughtful. Two fundamental questions she believes journalists should ask themselves are: ”Will I cause harm by my involvement?” and “Will I cause harm by choosing not to become involved?”
Policy aside, one of Purdon’s guiding principles is to never harm his subjects. On the other hand, he acknowledges that not intervening with Mohamed had the potential to cause more harm.
CBC ombudsman Esther Enkin says that, while a core value of the organization is independence, there is no explicit rule stating journalists should not get involved in a story, but to do so would have to be under a particular set of circumstances such as imminent loss of life. However, Enkin says there is still no blanket answer as to what is the correct course of action.
It was clear that Mohamed’s health was certainly deteriorating, but was his life in sufficient danger for Purdon and Palleja to contact the authorities? Whether they chose to call the RCMP or not, Enkin believes that either choice could be considered intervention.