The role of the journalist

Journalists conducting long term investigations into heavy topics such as human rights violations or systems of abuse are presented with the moral and ethical dilemma of sitting on sensitive information while injustice continues. Whether waiting for the most impactful moment to publish or for the story to develop further, the reporter must decide whether the role of the journalist is to publish as soon as they have a news story or to wait until they have enough information to publish the best story – one that may actually drive widespread change. The sooner a story is published the sooner the injustice is made public, but a less-impactful story may not have the power to bring down the perpetrators of violence or prevent future victims.

Lauren Wolf, a reporter for The Guardian encountered these ethical questions when reporting on the gang rape of more than 50 girls, aged 18 months to 11 years, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). For over a year, girls were being taken from their homes in Kavumu in the middle of the night, raped by several men and abandoned in a field outside the village. While reporting the story, Wolf quickly realized who was responsible: a member of parliament and his militia men who believed that the blood of virgin girls would protect them in battle. Through one of her sources involved in the investigation, Wolf learned that the DRC government also knew who the perpetrator was and they were planning to arrest the man soon.

Wolf wrote a long form piece for the Guardian to publish once the arrests were made. “A month went by, two months, and then finally five months. And I wasn’t sleeping at this point. I was thinking every night ‘what should I do,’” Wolf said in an interview with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics. While she waited, four more girls were abducted and raped, and still the man that both Wolf and the government knew to be responsible remained free. Unable to sit by and watch the government do nothing while more young girls became victims, Wolf decided that she would write an op-ed in order to scare the government into action.

This strategy had been minimally successful for Wolf once before. When she first wrote about the attacks in 2015, the government quickly responded to her article by announcing that it would launch a national investigation. The half-hearted, unfunded operation quickly fell victim to local corruption and an incompetent judicial system and did nothing to catch the perpetrator or protect the girls. However, this time Wolf was sitting on information that would not only reflected poorly on the government, but would show that it was actively protecting a rapist, that it was complicit in the endemic sexual violence that plagues the nation.

For legal reasons, Wolf could not reveal which member of parliament was responsible in her op-ed. Instead she wrote about how the government knew exactly who was behind the rapes. She wrote about the mishandled investigation, the extended delay in arresting the rapists, and her own attempt at understanding why the government would protect such a man. Without explicitly saying so, the piece had a clear message for the government: arrest this man or I publish an article that will be very embarrassing for you. Four hours after the op-ed was published the arrest was made, and 12 hours later 67 of his militia men were also in custody.

In writing the op-ed, Wolf was able to find a middle ground between publishing and not publishing her long-form article on the gang rapes. The op-ed functioned as a catalyst, forcing the story to develop further and creating the ideal time for her to publish her article. It also indirectly protected more girls from Kavumu from becoming rape victims.

However, there are two problems with this solution that make it difficult to apply as the standard ethical solution for this kind of journalistic dilemma. First, not every journalist or publication has the power to elicit that kind of governmental response and not every story about human rights violations has a single fact on which the whole story hinges as Wolf’s story did. For these logistical reasons, there are many stories for which writing an op-ed would not have the same effect of driving the story forward.

The other issue is that Wolf choose to insert herself into a story. She expanded her role as a reporter and became an active participant in trying to influence the events on which she was reporting. One of the first rules of journalism is not to allow conflicts of interest to influence one’s reporting. But when does indulging in conflicts of interest become the humane thing to do? When does human nature have to come before journalistic responsibility?

That is a hard parameter to define, but certainly in cases where systematic and systemic violence put the lives of vulnerable people in imminent danger a reporter must be allowed to act use their journalistic platform for the good of humanity. Journalists, unlike the average citizen, are in the unique position of being able to speak and be heard by the masses. Reporters can and should use that power to amplify the voices of the vulnerable. Wolf does this in her op-ed, quoting one of the victims saying “Arrest these men. Then let them be destroyed as they destroyed us.”

For many if not most instances in a journalist’s career the journalism should come first. The reporter should understand the importance of putting aside one’s own desires and biases and avoid acting as an activist for the issues they are covering. The journalist’s role is to uncover the truth so that the public can make informed decisions and actions. The journalist does not act. But there comes a point where adhering to these guidelines would require a reporter to deny their human instincts. At times where the journalistically ethical and the humanly ethical decisions conflict and where the journalist can make a real difference, the humanly ethical choice is the more responsible one.