WHEN SHOULD JOURNALISTS STEP INTO A STORY? AND WHEN SHOULD THEY REFUSE WHEN A CRIMINAL DEMANDS THEIR COVERAGE?

Every once in a while, a situation arises which makes those of us trained as journalists wonder just what is the proper response in a particular set of circumstances. Here are two examples of that:

CNN and other media outlets ran a story Saturday, complete with disturbing video, about a woman who screamed that she was beaten and raped by Moammar Gadhafi’s thugs in Libya. She was one of the few people who put herself at risk by passionately telling her story in front of the media. She had a sheet thrown over her head by Gadhafi’s “security” and whisked away.

It immediately occurred to me that there may have been enough reporters and camera people to possibly have stopped the men trying to silence the woman and could have prevented the woman from being taken away.

Now, there is always the possibility that members of the media would have put themselves at risk in many different ways had they intervened—booted out the country or worse. And the first thing they taught us in journalism school was that as a reporter, you never want to “become part of the story.” That basic rule was in conflict with one’s primary instinct—to help someone in distress or even possibly save someone’s life. At one point should members of the media drop their cameras, mics and notebooks and intervene?

Another ethical question for the media recently was the story of the man who police say shot and killed a cop and then took hostages as police closed in. The story unfolded in Athens, Georgia as Jamie Hood was holed up with hostages as the SWAT team was in position, ready and waiting. Hood insisted that local TV news cover his surrender live because he was supposedly afraid police would kill him. Local news crews acquiesced and covered the surrender.

There’s no question that the surrender of the alleged cop killer was “news.” But should journalists and news directors agree to cover a story because the alleged criminal demands it? In this case, local TV news operations became a pawn of the suspect. It is yet another conundrum for the media.

Discuss among yourselves.