When Reporters Should be Humans too

03/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is more than a week since an earthquake wrecked Haiti's already troubled land. It has taken this long for the first reliable death tolls to be collated. More than 110,000 people have died. That figure will rise and rise in the coming days.

The story has dominated news agendas. Hundreds of journalists have arrived alongside the emergency rescue teams and aid workers. They are playing an invaluable role in alerting the world to the unfolding tragedy and making sure that flow of donations and prayers continues.

But like in all emergencies the role of journalists is under careful scrutiny.

Andy Kershaw, a British DJ and music journalist, who has travelled many times to Haiti, offered by far the most powerful critique, accusing television coverage of security hysteria, of anticipating violence while failing to recognise the incredible discipline and dignity of most Haitians. He singled out one particular British journalist...

Frei's reluctance to recognise the amazing self-control of these desperate people, and instead to amplify the hysteria about violence for which he has scant evidence, has brought him at times worryingly close to calling the Haitians savages.

There is a second form of criticism: That by being in Haiti, using up seats on planes, scarce drinking water or security personnel, journalists are simply getting in the way. Some commentators have suggested using a pool system, allowing designated journalists in who then share their output across all media networks.

Like many journalists who have spent time working amid conditions of drought, hunger or war, my belief is that few things benefit from less coverage. The job of a journalist is to bear witness, to bring home stories of suffering so that the rest of the world cannot ignore what is happening. My job is not to distribute food, water or medicine. My aid comes in a different form.

But there are limits to the way I distance myself from a story. If someone lies dying in front of you, in a place where intervening carries no risk to yourself or your team, do you not have a duty to help? Should you not sling that person in the back of your car and speed to a hospital or somewhere else that can help? I remember watching with admiration as a BBC crew covering the disintegration of Yugoslavia did exactly that.

On Friday night I watched with increasing disbelief as Karl Penhaul reported for CNN on two looters shot by police. It was a disturbing and important story. But just as disturbing was the way a CNN crew filmed a man's dying breath before reporting with outrage how the body was simply left on the street for hours.

A discussion on CNN's Backstory suggests there was nothing Penhaul or his cameraman, Jerry Simonson, could do. And maybe it was already too late. The second man was in "reasonable shape", which maybe explains why they didn't help him either leaving it to a UN team passing. Presumably there is a window of injury in which they would have acted. It's a difficult call. When do you intervene and when do you keep out of the way?

Every journalist will have a different view on the exact balance to be struck. But I hope that I would have acted differently. Leaving a man to die in a warzone is one thing. Your own security has to come first. But that's not the same as leaving a man to die just because your rudimentary triage suggests there's no hope. Would the team have done the same thing if the man was dying in a New York street rather than in Haiti?

The callous killing of a looter by police is a disgusting act of barbarity. Nothing should distract from that fact. If highlighting that brutality means filming a dying man, then I understand. Journalists have a powerful role to play. It's just that sometimes other things should come first.

Rob Crilly spent five years covering wars in Sudan, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. His book, Saving Darfur, will be published next month by Reportage Press