Bill “The Science Guy” Nye passed out on stage at the University of Southern California yesterday. Rather than rushing to his aid, students got busy Tweeting and texting about Nye’s collapse. One AP writer called it a “disturbing” example of “youthful digital passivity in the face of danger.”
Without necessarily defending the Tweeting students, I would point out that this “passivity” could also be something else: journalistic “objectivity.” Two years ago, I took the time to videotape a gunshot man dying on a street during a battle in Abeche, Chad. I did not try to help the man as he lay at my feet. I fled only when someone opened fire in my direction. It’s all there in the video, above.
Asked about the incident a year later, I said it never occurred to me to help the man. It was my job to document the battle and its victims. If forced to choose between trying to save the life of someone I did not know, or recording his slow death so that I might highlight its tragedy, I suppose I will usually choose the latter. I am not a medic. I am not a decent person. I am a journalist.
And so are the USC students, in a sense. The more we equip ourselves with the technology to document our own lives and events around us, the more we might see merely observing as a role — and an important one. In that sense, it’s hypocritical for any journalist to criticize the students for watching rather than acting. For if they are a good journalist, they would have done the very same thing.