Jason Beaubien is a seasoned reporter. He has worked on National Public Radio’s foreign desk for almost 10 years; he has reported on coups, famines, war and natural disasters. He is used to chaos and violence – and a Haitian girl made him cry on the air.
Most people would say journalists should be objective. Objectivity has a connotation of fairness, of balance, of presenting all opinions as equal without giving your own. That’s how we think news should be delivered; otherwise, how do we know we’re getting the whole story?
This quest for objectivity is why reporters can describe a gruesome scene with a calm face and steady hand, often appearing almost callous in the face of tragedy. If they broke down at every broken bone, the news would come to a screeching halt.
So, when Beaubien choked while describing the trembling lips of the wounded girl, listeners were caught off guard.
A few were angry and chastised NPR for being sensationalist – and in some ways, the argument makes sense. Describing destruction is a way for us to see what the reporter sees, but it can easily become a way for us to feed our voyeuristic appetite for blood and guts.
This story is different.
Beaubien was genuinely concerned for a scared and hurting child, and he was obviously overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster. He apologized twice for what I’m sure he considered a lapse in journalistic integrity, but he didn’t need to. He accomplished in a few seconds what every reporter strives for: he made the story real.
His heartache made him human, and in that moment, every listener felt the full impact of the earthquake. We felt a connection to him and to the little girl laying on deck chairs in the middle of a driveway, and suddenly Haiti was much closer to us.
Objectivity is useful when it prevents journalists from favoring one political candidate or assuming anyone charged with a crime is guilty. It becomes a hindrance to good journalism when it robs stories of their emotional depth. Deadpan delivery doesn’t carry the weight of passion.
Beaubien’s story had a greater impact because of his emotion, and the result was a story that stuck. It isn’t a bad thing for a story to affect a reporter. It doesn’t mean she’s biased toward one side or the other. Sometimes there isn’t a side.
And sometimes, in the face of tragedy, we’re all on the same side.