Not since Hurricane Katrina have U.S. media stampeded into the jaws of danger as they have the last week in Haiti.
From the moment Anderson Cooper of CNN hitched a ride on a government chopper and became the first major news anchor to reach Haiti, reporters, anchors, and analysts have descended to cover the story.
The question is: Are they becoming the story?
Journalists have cleared debris, fed the hungry, rescued victims. And in this age of the reporter-doctor, they've set bones, delivered babies, and even done brain surgery.
Since 1980, news has swung more and more toward the personal. During Katrina, in 2005, some correspondents got so feely that the term "emo-journalism" - not a term of praise - was coined. Richard Goedkoop, associate professor of communication at La Salle University, recalls that "you had people like Geraldo Rivera standing on endangered levees, or Anderson Cooper demanding to know why help wasn't arriving."
But Goedkoop says the personal has its value. "My local paper ran a headline yesterday something like, 'Perhaps 200,000 Dead in Haiti,' " he said. "It's difficult to get your mind around such numbers - but an individual, personalized story, like the one on NBC News [Tuesday] night, can bring the story home better."
In that story, now viralized throughout the Internet (http://go.philly.com/jeanette), a Port-au-Prince woman named Jeanette who was buried six days in wreckage is saved by Los Angeles County firefighters who happen upon the scene.
Also on the scene is ITN's Bill Neely, reporting for NBC. Speaking very emotionally, Neely interviews her through a rift in the rubble, speaks to her in French, gives her water. She gives him a message for her husband, Roger: "Even if I die, I love you so much."
Roger cries, and claws ineffectually at the rubble. He calls to Jeanette, tells others, who have no way to reach her, "She's there! She's alive!" Later, the firefighters lift her out - and she thanks God and begins singing a hymn.
Neely involved himself intimately in the story and helped dramatize and personalize it. Acknowledging the issues, Goedkoop says the personal has its legitimate uses, "especially if it gets you to understand the real dimensions of the story. And could that have a function in driving more donations?"
At least since Herb Morrison cried, "Oh, the humanity!" when the dirigible Hindenburg exploded in 1937, unscripted surprise, shock, and horror have been accepted as legitimate parts of reportage. Even as he wept, Morrison kept reporting the horrific crash.
Thus, few complained when Associated Press correspondent Tony Winton's professionalism budged but didn't break during a stiff aftershock in Haiti: "Wait a second . . . that's pretty bad . . . that's a lot of shaky, that's a lot of shaky . . . " (http://go.philly.com/winton). If anything, his remarks made his report more believable.
But what of the reporter who stresses how sympathetic he or she is - one such as Brian Williams of NBC, who gazes soulfully into the eyes of quake victims and asks how they feel, or Fox News' Steve Harrigan, who chokes up as a bulldozer moves quake wreckage around behind him?
Some observers say the focus should rest not on the messenger but on the message, not on the reporter but on the victims. And some feel uneasy about Cooper, who, as he often does, got involved, and fast. When looting and violence broke out in Port-au-Prince, he put down his camera, went in, and pulled away a little boy covered in blood (http://go.philly.com/cooperboy). All was captured in video. A closing shot shows the boy's bloody handprints.
Gripping TV - or manipulative self-aggrandizement, using suffering to score ratings?
Viewers may applaud acts of kindness in dangerous situations - unless they feel that these acts are performed to highlight not the situation, but the reporter. In his column, David Hinckley of the New York Daily News drew the line clearly. Robin Roberts of ABC's Good Morning America located Esther, an orphan whose adoptive parents in Iowa were waiting for her. Esther was airlifted to Pittsburgh, where her new parents received her. ABC followed the arc of what, by any measure, was a heart-warmer of a story.
As Hinckley wrote: "The part about locating the orphan felt just fine. . . . What felt less comfortable was the sense that ABC was using Roberts' achievement to sell a TV program."
Veteran reporters know the issues well. Sydney Schanberg, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the war in Cambodia, said: "What do you do when you're a reporter? How do you feel when you realize you really can't help the people you're covering as a group? Mostly, you come away feeling you can't do very much for them. The best you can do is try to describe their misery in their own words."
Robert Rosenthal, former Inquirer editor and now executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, said: "During a huge famine in the Sahel in 1984, people dying left and right, I can remember vividly in a refugee camp, people coming up, holding dying children in front of me and beseeching me for help. I didn't do anything, and it tore my heart out. In my mind, the rationale always was, 'My role is to inform the world and hopefully the world will understand and help.' But it's never easy."
James M. Naughton, former president of the Poynter Institute and a former Inquirer executive editor, said: "I'm old-school. But, having said that, I would imagine that if I heard a cry for help from under a pile of rubble I would try to unpile the rubble. Whether I would write about it would be the next ethical question. Probably not. . . . The risk in putting yourself in the story is that the story becomes about you, but there can be exceptions."
One big exception in Haiti is the spectacle of the doctor-reporter - the journalist who's also a physician, facing viewers with competing codes of ethics.
CNN's Sanjay Gupta rolled up his sleeves and performed emergency brain surgery Tuesday, removing concrete debris from a 12-year-old Haitian girl's skull aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Gupta is a neurosurgeon, whose oath obliges him to provide treatment.
CBS's Jennifer Ashton (also an M.D.) helped treat an amputee, and now she is helping run a clinic at which she performs multiple surgeries. ABC's Richard Besser (a doctor and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) helped deliver a baby. (Both Ashton and Besser include analysis and reportage along with their medical exploits.)
Because the Haitian quake happened so close to our shores, it will be one of the most thoroughly, emotionally reported disasters in history. But will the attention last?
"I doubt if the focus will stay on Haiti as long as it did on O.J. Simpson or Michael Jackson," says Goedkoop. "My guess is that it will not last as long as the coverage of Katrina/New Orleans because it is an international rather than a domestic story."