Friday, August 7, 2009

Journalism and exploitation

A recent New York Times article described the problem of male rape in Congo. The piece was accompanied by photographs of four of the victims, framed by striking blue backgrounds. The caption read, "... All are Congolese men who were recently raped and agreed to be photographed."*

I had to wonder...why was it significant that they had their photographs taken? And what was the incentive? Is this "good journalism"? Would the story have held as much weight without it?

At a conference on orphan ministry that I attended in the spring, they told the story of some orphans who had been visited by a team of Americans. The Americans quickly won their trust and interviewed the children. The children were eager to share their stories and agreed to be videotaped. These tapes were later aired on TV, and the kids eventually saw themselves on TV. Their personal lives became a sensation, something used to produce a reaction. It was traumatizing for them.

full post/-

This leads me to the question...when does an attempt at advocacy become exploitation? The U.S. journalists recently freed in N. Korea had been investigating the sex trade. Their research was surely a worthy cause. Yet I wonder how they would have chosen to publish the results.

Although I have shared about specific children here and there on my blog, I've been pretty careful about it recently. I avoid last names, addresses, and orphanage numbers. Not only do I want to keep them safe, I want to respect their privacy. I wouldn't write something personal about my closest friends on here without their permission, or without feeling certain that I'm not writing something that they would object to. I start to feel uncomfortable realizing that some of my ESL students will grow up and start using the Internet, and just may run across these posts someday. Would they approve?

So why write about it at all? Mainly I share the stories because they have become a part of my life, and this is my personal blog.

But there is an advocacy element, too.

"Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." (Ps. 82: 3,4)
When I do a presentation on orphans, I truly want people to get involved to help make a difference. And I use photos and personal stories to show that these are real, individual children.

But I don't want to manipulate people's emotions. Sometimes I really do face an ethical dilemma. In my heart, I believe that God is the one to call people to action, and that I should leave it in His hands. Therefore, I think it's better to avoid appealing to the emotions. When I'm speaking to a body of believers, I do want to speak from the heart, but I think there is a way to do it without misusing the plight of others, even if it is to save them.

*From "Symbol of Unhealed Congo-Male Rape Victims." In The New York Times August 4, 2009.


  1. "I do want to speak from the heart, but I think there is a way to do it without misusing the plight of others, even if it is to save them" - this is such an elegant, beautiful and profound statement. I cringe all the time when I see that kind of public exploitation - supposedly for a "good cause". I know I walk a thin line too, during all my training and speaking, when I do use personal reflections and experiences to illustrate deeper truths and lessons. Yet, I pray that I do it in a way that is not exploitive, and that is more in the realm of parable and truth-telling-tale than exploitive heart-string-tugging and manipulation. Its a hard line to walk and can't say I manage it perfectly but I think if we at least are aware of it and consciously think about it, we are going to get it right more often. Interesting, I just read an article written by a British journalist about this very theme, sans the Christian foundation - I'll send you the link - it was a comparison of Emma Thompson's adoption of a youth from Africa versus Madonna's. Thought provoking.

    Anyway, on a separate note - what was the conference you went to on orphans in the spring? Love to hear more. And what are you doing next week? Are you going to the North American Council on Adoptable Children conference in Columbus, OH? I think you would be interested. Let me know if you want more info.

  2. Thanks Sue, I knew you would have some good thoughts. The Emma Thompson article was good, too. I also think that Michael Jackson did a lot more for charity than was publicized, although he still managed to draw plenty of attention to himself. The whole celebrity adoption thing is another topic and makes me want to rant.

    I think I've mentioned briefly the conference I attended.

    I'll write you about the other stuff.

  3. Liz- tough topic! There's a lot of gray area- and each story has to be assessed on an individual basis. My undergraduate degree was in Journalism, and I remember debates frequently rising up in many of the classes about this very thing.

    I for one think it was significant that these men had their photographs taken. For something as degrading as rape, I think it was a big deal to take a stand and allow photos to be taken. I would imagine that they took a big risk in Congolese society by agreeing. Something must have compelled them to agree. Obviously it wouldn't be notoriety- but maybe a feeling that by allowing the story and photos that maybe they could help make the rapes stop.

    Yes, the story SHOULD hold its weight on the reporting, but society (especially western society) has changed so much since TV came along. I have found that many people today need to "put a face" on a problem. But it is a balancing act between raising awareness and avoiding exploitation. My opinion is that this will only become harder with the "traditional" media outlets (newspapers, TV, radio, etc.) because almost all have become for-profit in the last 60 years- which is a shame. The alternatives, blogs and web-based media, have unfortunately already started down this path as well.

    Photos and videos have helped raise awareness for our (yours, ours, our friends) work here in St. Petersburg; and Miki and I personally find advocacy at the core of our calling. We feel led to tell the stories of those to whom we minister. And many times photos and videos do that better than words.

    The most interesting thing that we have found with photos are that the ones that capture the joy in these children are the most effective. It's as though many people have a wall built up around them to protect their hearts from disturbing images, but the ones showing the nature of the kids seem to break all that down. When people finally see the kids as human, as children just like their children, that's when the advocacy seems to work.

    So, to me, the way in which the Congolese men where photographed was very respectful- It displayed the men, not their situation. But on the other hand, disturbing images have their place as well- ie: I'm thinking of a picture of MLK Jr's pool of blood on the concrete walkway just minutes after he was taken to the hospital. It's vital to telling the story.

    I am constantly assessing the validity of the photos and video up on our website, and have left some off the web for certain reasons. As far as TV goes- that team of Americans you mentioned should've gotten permission before broadcasting. And "producing a reaction"- I guess I'd need to know more about how you ended up called to St. Petersburg. Wasn't that a reaction to something you saw, read, heard or witnessed that started you down a path of discovery with God and His plan?

    I want a reaction. Not something sensational, but something that triggers a person to ask God if he or she is to take part in what He's doing here in Russia.

    Finally, I completely get where you're coming from in presentations- we just spent two years doing that and it wore us out! It's hard not to feel like you're in the middle of a "dog and pony show" at times. But with emotional motivation- I'm more confused about that these days. John 11:35 keeps messing with me about the topic. "Jesus wept." So from an incarnational standpoint, maybe emotion is not all bad when it comes to motivation. Just a thought.

    Thanks for offering this one up, and for letting me babble on about it!


  4. Charlie, you are one journalist who always does a wonderful job, AND you brought up some good points here.

    I guess with the Congo story I was thinking about the point-of-view of the journalists. Were they being advocates, or just reporting? I guess I will never know. Something I think you hit on is that there is a sense of victory to create a object of beauty (an image) out of a tragic circumstance. In that case I can see how the photography is symbolic.

    In Christ's time I don't think it was too hard to find visual examples nearby to illustrate sermons. If the poor weren't in the crowd, they were certainly nearby. But what about today when media is not just reminding people about the needy in their hometowns, but also across the world, something they would not have been exposed to otherwise?

    It's a big deal introducing people to needs that they wouldn't have thought about otherwise, which is great if it moves them to action. But if it isn't their particular calling, it could cause confusion. I sometimes have to avoid reading the news, even about other areas of Russia, so that I can focus more on the precious people whom I already serve.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that when people in your midst are made emotionally vulnerable, what you say next could influence their future, for the better or the worse.

    Tears motivated by compassion aren't wasted, yet they aren't necessarily an indication that a person is called to serve that particular need.

    I suppose in the beginning I was told that there were Russians "desperate" to hear about Jesus. And it did get a reaction out of me. It wasn't like the answer came to me as a voice from heaven; God used people. But I didn't hear much about orphans and other needs until later, when I had already met individuals and had them in my hearts. It's important to have context.

    It definitely depends on an individual's calling, but journalists have their role as well, and it's a big responsibility.

    I like what you said..."I want a reaction." It's a good place to start.

  5. I very much agree with your concern that while advocating for people, you may still be impacting their future for good or ill by how you do it. I was about to argue that the rape victims were probably convinced that to have their photos taken and shared would "put a human face" (as they like to say) on rape. I do think that is important. BUT...then I began to also think that, perhaps we cannot always see the outcome of this kind of publicity. Yes; it might "put a human face on rape"....but it might make the actual, everyday lives of these men more unbearable. These men might not have been able to forsee what it would be like to lose their anonymity.(Certainly the journalist would be less able to do so). I know nothing about it, but there are unforseen consequences to every act.

    I never hesitate to call on people's emotions. I really do think that some people respond emotionally with intellect following (OK - me) while others respond the other way around.


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