Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A lesson from exploiting pains

What should you - a journalist – do when you want to interview the mother of a teenage murderer for an in-depth report of a crime story? This would make a fascinating report; however, it could also hurt the mother who has been suffering the pains of her son’s crime. Working as a TV reporter for seven years, I always faced such questions whenever I made investigative reports.

For young journalists, being allowed to undertake an investigative report presents a good opportunity to make further progress in their career. It seems investigative journalists share a common characteristic - the ‘burning’ desire to find and disclose the truth. As Kovach and Rosenstiel discuss, the watchdog principle requires journalists a special temperament, a special hunger and a desire to cover serious concerns (2007). In the circumstance of thinking about whether investigative journalists should continue finding and telling the truth, or stop for ethical concerns, many of them - at least from my observations – often decide to go further. They try to find appropriate reasons for their decision and this somehow helps them avoid matters of ethics or questions of conscience. I was no exception.
In 2008, I made a TV program about the social impacts of online games on teenagers in Vietnam (2008). This program included a story about a 13 year-old teenage murderer who first kidnapped his five year-old cousin, for just $2, to buy a ‘virtual weapon’ in a violent game on the internet. He, however, killed the child without demanding money from his aunt. It is argued that the teenager’s criminal action resulted from his mental obsession with the violent actions in the games and that this incident raised the questions of the families’, schools’ and other social institutions’ responsibility for taking care of and educating teenagers. I suggested interviewing the murderer’s mother, a nurse, though I knew she could refuse me. I went to the local authorities, asking for help; and they advised me not to reopen her old wounds. However, I decided to do so with the understanding that it was not just for a groundbreaking story, but to help other parents.
I had reasons to explain why I had conducted such interview. The issue was not only of an individual or a family; it was a social problem. Given the boom of the online games and game outlets, many teenagers in Vietnam are now being absorbed into a virtual life with violent and sexual temptations. Ironically, at home parents do not know what their children are doing in their locked rooms. When their children go to school, parents are confident that the teachers can control them. However, this is only during class time. Moreover, other social institutions cannot attract children due to uninteresting activities. The game suppliers and outlets were blame for just running for profit and ignoring the question of conscience. The story, therefore, should be told. It was sad and painful, but would probably make other parents, schools, or even game suppliers and policy-makers, aware of the possible dangers of online games to children.
I had not known about the Utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill until I undertook this course. However, being a journalist for years, I have always acted with the principle of serving the interest of the majority. This is Mill’s standpoint (1975). Whenever I, as well as my colleagues, had to make a decision, we often considered it as ‘providing the greatest possible good for the greatest number’. This sounds ideal and moral, but for us, it sometimes simply became a ‘good reason’ for approaching and persuading vulnerable people to tell their stories. Fortunately, they normally agreed.
The mother agreed to give an interview when I asked her to think about other parents who may face such situations. Her shared feelings could not bring her nephew back, or help her son escape punishment; however, it could warn other parents to pay more attention to their children. I was successful in convincing her to think about her responsibility to the community instead of her own pain. The program was indeed successful. Many parents expressed their sympathy for the mother and their own worry about their children. Many of them asked us for a copy of the program as a reference. The mother’s story became typical and was used in many other programs talking about social impacts of online gaming and the internet.
“I asked myself why I am a nurse, saving people’s life but have
a son who is a killer”
There was, nevertheless, something paradoxical hovering in my mind after the program was broadcast. I wonder whether I would be brave enough to sit in front of the camera and tell my story if I were her. I would probably not, even with such a ‘good reason’ for serving the public interest. I did not know, and tried not to think how she could overcome the obsession with her nephew’s death and her son’s crime. “I asked myself why I am a nurse, saving people’s life but have a son who is a killer”, she said in the interview and I was indeed obsessed by these words. I also asked myself the question whether the so-called ‘responsibility to the community’ would bring her serenity. I have never seen her again because I did not want to face the unanswered question of ‘serenity’. My problem was that I was not assured of the righteousness of my decision until I received the response from the audience. Despite authoring many investigative reports on social affairs, I have been unable to clarify what is the majority, or public interest. This, in a way, often led me to a question of conscience: Is it moral to ignore personal pain to serve the public interest?
Utilitarianism can obviously give journalists rational reasons to make decisions. However, for me it looks like an ‘analgesic’ rather than an ‘extirpation’. People might forget their wounds when they think about their responsibility to society, but it does not mean their wounds can be healed.
Many journalists are now learning about Buddhist philosophy. Buddha, on the contrary, does not ignore pain. Instead, he considers ‘suffering’ as the fundamental ‘truth’ of existence (Kalupahana, 1992). Being aware of ‘suffering’ makes it possible for people to cease ‘suffering’. This, by extension, means that we do not need to ignore pain when we approach those who are in pain. It is said that the best way to heal the pain is to face and understand the pain. If I could interview the teenage murderer’s mother again, I would probably not need a reason to cover the bitter truth. I think, by understanding how the tragedy occurred, the mother could find a way to overcome it. I then could find serenity as I know the tragedy could end because of the way we face it, not by any ‘ideal reason’. This, after all, also serves the public interest.
Understanding Buddhist philosophy might not result in any specific code of ethics for journalists to make decision. It is a process of awareness of life and it needs experience. As journalists’ work is telling stories of life, this thought might be a lodestar. The truth might be the same, but its insight might be different.

Video (in Vietnamese)

                                        (For the part 2 and 3, access links in the Bibliography)


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