We are All Journalists: We are All Bad People


Categorie: David Axe, Reporters |


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.


8 Responses to “We are All Journalists: We are All Bad People”

  1. Jules Rivera says:

    While I think you’re dead on here, I’m gonna play devil’s advocate and throw a few possible explanations out there.

    1. Students might not have known the level of danger Nye was in. Even now we don’t really know what his ailment could have been/could still be. In this day in age, we see drunk/high people stumbling around in public all the time and when we do it’s a spectacle, not an excuse to help.

    2. In some reports, Nye himself refused assistance. Eventually, he had to be removed from the stage. How do you help someone who doesn’t want the help?

    3. Not everyone’s up to speed on their CPR certs (myself included). I believe if you’re not equipped to provide someone meaningful assistance, you might as well leave him be and contact the proper authorities. You might do more harm than good.

    All in all, while I do believe there are a lot of people out there who are more comfortable with the observer’s way of life, I think there’s a little more to the picture than that.

    However, I agree society is totally loaded with bad people. I count myself among them.

  2. jdalton says:

    Don’t forget the tendency, too, for crowds of people to develop a mass indifference to others’ suffering. I forget the term for that. But for the average person, one’s first instinct is not to rush to the aid of someone in trouble, but to look around for someone else in the crowd to act first.

    I lived in East London for a year and during my time there there were a few occasions when I could have, should have, stepped in to help someone or phoned the authorities. I didn’t. It took a conscious decision from me after a couple of such incidents to say no, it is my job to step in. Having decided that, the next time I did. But I wouldn’t have come to that decision without repeated exposure to such situations.

  3. @jdalton It’s called “Bystander Effect” and pretty normal. That’s why if first responders need help with anything they single people out (“you there with the red shirt”) so those can’t hide in the crowd. Conciousness about it is in fact the only way to fight it: it’s why psychology students who’re told about the BE are actually more likely to take the initiative (and which is why i know at least what it’s called).

    @Dave Journalism doesn’t pick sides, which sets it apart from propaganda. How would you have treated a gun-shot wound anyway?

  4. Karyn says:

    I believe you’re socially constructing your own definition of a “journalist” and you certainly satisfy your own criteria. so, uh, good job!

    as for thinking that students failing to help bill nye after a tumble is the same as you watching a man die while shining a light in his face during his last moments.. that’s just sad and desperate. it speaks against your journalistic ability when you come up with such an obviously unmatched comparison.

  5. Karyn says:

    @Chris — good call with the bystander effect, there is also the concept “diffusion of responsibility,” but it neither accounts for situations when the number of people involved in small (like axel’s situation).

  6. [...] on stage. Bystanding youths Tweet the event instead of helping. Media types wring their hands. I point out that the bystanders were just acting as journalistic observers, removed from the situation. Mother [...]

  7. CrankSolo says:

    I don’t buy it. The difference is that you ARE a journalist, and thus can and should abide journalistic ethics (which you are right to point can include choosing to record death rather than try to prevent it). But these students are not journalists. Are they eligible for press passes? Do they identify themselves as that? Are they even aware of journalistic ethics? Do they think these standards apply to them?

    At the risk of hyperbole, the problem is that if everyone is a journalist, then no one is. And if no one is a journalist, then we should start getting used to tyranny.

    That said, keep up the good work, Journalist!

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