As a journalist living in the conflict-ridden Palestinian territory of the West Bank, Brendan Work ’10, found himself on the other side of the story as the focus of a photo* in the September 22 issue of The New York Times, caught holding an injured Palestinian boy just seconds after the boy was shot in the eye.
“Under a very strict understanding of the mission of journalism, what I did was not absolutely kosher, by helping my subject, but he was only a 15 year-old boy who later lost his eye,” said Work.
Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times columnist, Nicholas D. Kristof, devoted much of his address at Swarthmore earlier this month to the internal struggle between the principle of journalistic impartiality and the sympathetic impulse which Work had experienced in Palestine. “Ultimately it’s the obligation we have as human beings that needs to take priority,” said Kristof.
Work has been working for the Palestine News Network, an Arabic-language international media outlet, presenting the events from a Palestinian perspective, since 2010. He has been mostly translating and compiling articles, and occasionally reporting himself. He is also writes a blog about his experiences.
With the Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations under way in mid-September and the rising tensions in the area, Work set out to cover a potential demonstration at a checkpoint in the West Bank. When the Palestinian demonstration, which according to Work was somewhat disorganized, was confronted with the Israeli army, it became violent. Although, according to Work, Israeli soldiers are not instructed, nor permitted, to fire rubber bullets above waist level, or shoot tear gas canisters directly at protesters, he said that the soldiers had been defying those orders all throughout that day.
“The Palestinians began throwing stones and bottles and the Israeli soldiers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets, and other crowd control methods,” said Work. Around noon, Work was standing 30 or 40 feet away from the Israeli army when he witnessed the 15 year-old Palestinian boy preparing to throw a bottle, who then was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet by an Israeli soldier. “So he fell down in front of me and I bent down to help him when the soldiers shot tear gas into the storefront where we were huddled,” said Work.
Work asked some nearby news photographers to assist him, and the group of men carried the injured boy to a waiting ambulance. Later that day, at the hospital, Work found out through other witnesses that the boy had lost his eye.
“You help people. It’s that simple,” said Jim MacMillan, Visiting Instructor at the Peace and Conflict Studies Department and War News Radio Journalist in Residence, about working in areas of disaster or conflict and reporting on human strife.
MacMillan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, said that if someone else is there to help a wounded victim, then he might photograph him or her, depending on other ethical or news values and considerations. “But if I am the pivotal player as to whether this person lives or dies, then the answer is pretty easy.” Macmillan said. “I would help without giving it a second thought, before I would report, but this took me years of practice and some study to resolve,” he said.
Macmillan believes that journalists who say they would report before participating are either pretentious or less experienced. He advises that the best thing a journalist can do before they are faced with such a moral dilemma is to talk to other more experienced journalists to see what they have decided to do in similar situations.
He said that young journalists will perform better if they think through potential scenarios. When giving advice to students or early career journalists he said he often reminds them that “you might have only been a journalist for a short time, but you’ve been a human being for your whole life and the same conscience which has guided you in other realms, will guide you in journalism.”
Work moved to the Middle East immediately after he graduated from Swarthmore, but before the start of The Arab Spring. “If I had graduated in 2011, I would have had Egypt and Tunisia open to me, and a lot of other interesting revolutionary scenes for me to see, but when I graduated, Palestine was it,” he said.
Work’s advice for Swatties who want to learn about conflict in more practical terms is simple. “Buy a place ticket and just go to the conflict, without second thoughts as to why you wanted to do it in the first place. I absolutely recommend it,” he said.
* The photo is second in the slide show.