Every profession has its moral codes, some written but most of the time unwritten. Journalism is no exception and indeed this is a question that has continued to haunt the profession since its inception. This is particularly so because journalism’s best practices also are determined by a notion of objectivity that would have the journalist be simple observers and reporters of events and not be their participants. The troubling question is, to what extent can this journalistic definition of objectivity, especially in situations of human tragedies, remain ethical. Two powerful images should put this argument in perspective. One is of a certain freelance photojournalist, Kevin Carter, who won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for photojournalism in 1994 for his photograph of a severely famished, virtually dying, Sudanese girl toddler crawling towards a UN food centre some distance away, during a famine in this conflict torn nation, even as a vulture stalked her as if ready to pounce on her if she drops dead. The picture was first published in the The New York Times and it shocked the entire world, so much so that this prestigious newspaper had to issue an unusual editorial comment in a subsequent edition that the girl did make it alive to the UN food centre and that Carter chased away the vulture before leaving the scene. But the scene, and probably his inadequate response to the human situation apart from his journalistic instinct of making headline news of the event, haunted him so much ever after that he went into a depression he never recovered from. According to his father he was often found crying alone inconsolably. Carter ultimately committed suicide the same year he won the coveted prize.
The second image conveys a totally different picture of journalistic responsibility. Seventy five years after his death near the summit of Mt. Everest, on May 1, 1999, George Leigh Mallory’s body was discovered during another one of numerous search expeditions spanning seven decades to find his, and his climbing partner, Andrew Irvine’s, bodies. Bad weather however prevented a closer examination of the body on the day. On May 16, two men in the expedition, Andy Politz and Thom Pollard, carrying with them a tent and some supplies, returned to the spot for a closer look after lasting out a bout of bad weather at the expedition base camp. Pollard, had writing assignments including numerous offers for a book at the time. The two had with them a metal detector to try and locate the camera that Mallory was known to have taken along, and Kodak Company was of the opinion that the exposed film in the camera still could be processed as it would be well preserved by the perennial subzero temperature, and because the film in it was black and white, hence less prone to chemical degeneration. When they came to the body, Pollard’s reaction was in his own words: “The sight of Mallory’s foot protruding from the end of the rocks was the most powerful and humbling site of my life. It brought tears to my eyes.”
Then the two proceeded about trying to detect Mallory’s camera. In the process, Pollard came face to face with Mallory. From Pollard’s description, the likeness of Mallory was well preserved with calm but closed eyes. He had a golf ball size wound in the forehead with two shards of bones protruding out of it confirming he died instantaneously when he fell. Then the thought occurred that Pollard had a camera with him. But on second thought, and in consultation with his expedition partner Andy Politz, they decided it would be wrong to take a picture of Mallory’s face, and so today the only picture of the dead legend’s face, a man who possibly reached the summit of Mt. Everest three decades before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay did but could not return to tell his tale, is what Pollard carried back in his memory. Politz did not even want to see the face and be burdened with the responsibility to tell what he saw. Here were two men who overcame the pulls of their careers and professional ambitions even at a moment they found the elixir to reach the pinnacle to keep within what they thought was the demand of human decency. But beyond the instant glory and material endorsements they would surely have received had they been less scrupulous, they earned something else. Respect and gratitude of the sane world, away from the maddening crowd of instant wealth and instant success seekers.