Joyce Terhaar

Is a journalist’s role to save lives or inform the world?

This photograph of stunned survivors, taken by Ketevan Kardava, became the iconic image of the terror attacks Tuesday in Brussels. “As a journalist,” Kardava said later, “it was my duty to take these photos and show the world what was going on.”
This photograph of stunned survivors, taken by Ketevan Kardava, became the iconic image of the terror attacks Tuesday in Brussels. “As a journalist,” Kardava said later, “it was my duty to take these photos and show the world what was going on.” via The Associated Press

“I was not able to help them.”

That was part of the headline on a USA Today story about the journalist who captured photographic images in the immediate aftermath of the Brussels airport bombing. Ketevan Kardava, a special correspondent for Georgian Public Broadcaster, became part of the news herself as she talked about what happened. She sounded like she felt she needed to defend her work. She doesn’t.

Reports and the photographs tell us the scene was chaotic, with debris everywhere including pieces of bodies and clothes. Kardava told Time that she was in shock and couldn’t believe she still had her legs because “around me there were dozens of people without legs, lying in blood.” In less than one minute there was a second explosion that sent survivors fleeing. Kardava stayed to take more photographs.

Kardava posted her images on Facebook, along with a plea for help. Part of the response there was that she should instead have been saving people.

What would you do in the middle of such disaster? Instinct replaces calculated thought and many of us, facing overwhelming danger, would run to survive. Those with the fortitude to handle it – and the skills to be useful – might stay and become heroes.

But it is heroic, too, to pause in flight to make images that shout 911 to the world. Kardava did that. On Tuesday, as assistant director of multimedia Sue Morrow showed me and Managing Editor Scott Lebar a selection of photographs from the scene, it was Kardava’s work that best communicated the horror and toll of the attack. Her photo of two injured and bleeding women became the iconic image shared around the world; it was published by The Sacramento Bee online and on the front page of Wednesday’s newspaper.

What we do as journalists is unique and essential. Nobody else has that responsibility.

Bob Steele, Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute

“I wanted to run to a safe place, too,” Kardava told Time. “But I also wanted to take pictures. As a journalist, it was my duty to take these photos and show the world what was going on. I knew I was the only one at this spot.”

Journalists have a dual obligation when surrounded by such destruction, said ethicist Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at The Poynter Institute. Humanity, the possibility of saving a life, comes first. But a journalist’s responsibility to record an event for the world is a very real obligation.

“What we do as journalists is unique and essential. Nobody else has that responsibility,” Steele said. “That’s an ethical responsibility, not just a professional duty, to inform the public about significant events and issues in our society. Certainly what happened … in Brussels falls in that category.”

Renée C. Byer is a Bee photographer who has traveled the world capturing images of children and families in dire situations. In Sacramento, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her images chronicling a young boy’s death from cancer. She captures the human spirit where you would least expect to find it. She said she never has been faced with the decision Kardava faced at the airport.

“Her bravery and instincts to post the pictures on Facebook are heroic,” Byer said. “She was in a vulnerable position. She did the right thing.”

She was in a vulnerable position. She did the right thing.

Renée C. Byer, Bee visual journalist

Like Steele, Byer said a journalist must first “do whatever you can to help. ... Then the next thing to do is try to get the pictures out.”

Anyone with a smartphone camera can do the same. Increasingly, in protests or war zones or attacks around the world, we learn what happened through on-the-ground efforts by someone in the crowd. Byer said that creates more responsibility for journalists, not less, to teach values of truth and accuracy: “They have to have the ethics … and understand the responsibility,” she said of citizen journalists.

Too much, sadly, can be faked, which is why news organizations work to authenticate before publication. And unlike the iconic photograph from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – a firefighter cradling a wounded toddler – that was taken by bank employee and freelance photographer Charles Porter IV, many citizen efforts look like the photographs in my iPhone. Trust me, they don’t compare with the efforts of Byer and other visual journalists.

“While the mobile images were relevant and immediate, they won’t be the pictures we recall from Brussels,” Morrow said. “It will be the iconic image of the travelers, who could be me or you. We can relate to those victims.”

Kardava took the time to place the world at the Brussels airport. It’s an uncomfortable place to be, but one that ensures the issue of terrorism remains urgent for us all.

As Byer told me: “We all need to see the unvarnished realities of life so we can share the humanity and bring understanding to others.”

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