The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting ‘side discussion’ continued


General Culture, General Photography

Seems like sometimes you can’t get past topics by calling them “side discussions on blogs.” You’ll remember my earlier post about Benjamin Chesterton raising a couple of important issues about a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (PCoCR) project. The PCoCR did react, after all: “Vernaschi’s photographs are gut-wrenching, black-and-white portraits of pain and abuse. We share his belief that photography can play a powerful role in mobilizing public opinion, in Uganda and beyond, to stop this abuse. But we now believe — and Vernaschi agrees — that we were wrong in the way we handled the cases of Mukisa and Babirye.” (more; updated)

That’s not too bad, I thought. It did strike me as slightly… how can I say this… let’s say weird that the PCoCR would write “In the course of this project so far we have learned some painful, useful lessons about the ambiguous intersections of free-lance journalism, blog posts and articles that are published or broadcast.” Ambiguous intersections? But, OK, something happened.

At this stage, you have to try to imagine the sound of screeching tires.

Then read this blog post.

If I understand things correctly, more than just a few minor details of the digging up of the child are completely wrong. That in itself is bad enough. But the author of The Vigilante Journalist, Anne Holmes, also notes that she sent all the information she gathered to the PCoCR. The PCoCR still stands by the story, even though they know it’s inaccurate.

It’s one thing to get a story wrong. While that’s unfortunate, that can get fixed. And it does happen to everybody, mainstream news organizations and blogs.

But it’s quite another thing to stick to a wrong story. And If the wrong story concerns the circumstances of a dead child being dug up so that a photographer can take pictures, with money involved in all of that… That’s way beyond the pale.

I was going to write a bit more, but it might be just best to quote Anne Holmes concluding remarks (Babirye Mergret is the name of the girl whose body was dug up):

“I wish also to express my deepest condolences to the family of Babirye Mergret. This act, this desecration in the name of journalism is beyond debate. It is immoral, perverse and cannot be endorsed, condoned or explained away by Mr. Vernaschi or the Pulitzer Center. What’s done is done. As you make your bed so you must lie in it.”

Update (22 April 2010): I changed my mind. Some comments, in no particular order:

One of the sentiments you still hear about blogs (here is a brand-new example) is that blogs are run by amateurs who don’t really know how to behave like real journalists, whereas the professional journalists know how to do proper work (let’s ignore the simple fact that some bloggers are professional journalists). Turns out that in the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting story the roles are actually exactly reversed: It is a blogger - Anne Holmes - who is unearthing all the background information, putting in long hours or research (and even telling the Pulitzer Center about her results), and it is the supposed professionals who gloss over some of the most glaring details. It seems the idea that the idea of amateurish blogs and professional mainstream media doesn’t seem to hold too much water, does it?

There has been a lot of talk how photojournalism is in crisis. I don’t know whether it is. But if it hasn’t been in crisis a few days ago, you can be certain that a lot of people who find out about this story will be convinced that it is now. This story has done photojournalistic credibility no good. Oh, I know, it’s just one photojournalist. But a public that is very distrustful towards the media certainly is not going to bother making any kinds of distinctions, is it? As I argued in my post about image manipulation, trying to regain the public’s trust is one of the most important tasks for the media, and clearly this is not happening here. Quite on the contrary.

It is very encouraging to see so many photojournalists speaking out - Benjamin added a few new links to his original post, these provide good starting points to see what photographers are saying about this.

Lastly, lest we forget this, there actually is a real story that needs to be talked about: child sacrifice in Uganda. But what will people remember? Will they remember the facts about child sacrifice in Uganda? Or will they remember a photojournalist who needed to get photos so badly that he had a dead child dug up (using money to achieve his goals)?