Journalism 101

There is a mantra amongst journalists to become the ultimate "detached observer." The reporter's duty is to observe current events and to document them in a balanced manner. In no way should a journalist insert himself into a story. He is not there to influence unfolding events; he is not there to change things. He is there to watch.

But are there exceptions to the rule?

In the fall of 1957, a fifteen year-old girl named Elizabeth Eckford got off a municipal bus and headed towards her school. She held her books against her chest and she wore sunglasses to cover the fear in her eyes. A large crowd had gathered outside the school and people shouted at her.

"Go back where you came from," one woman yelled.

"Don't let her in our school," called out another.

Elizabeth Eckford was black. She was part of a group of nine African-American students who attempted to integrate Little Rock schools in 1957. The students planned to meet that morning so they could all head to school as a group. But no one was able to reach the Eckford's because the family did not have a telephone. So Elizabeth, who arrived early, headed to school alone and faced the crowds and soldiers by herself.

Elizabeth walked up to the entrance and tried to go into the school, but she was turned away by the National Guard. The governor of Arkansas had sent in state troops to prevent school integration. Elizabeth tried to enter the school a second time, but again she was rebuffed. She was stuck. She walked back to the bus stop and took a seat on the bench, hoping anxiously that a bus would arrive soon. The angry mob followed her, shouting more jeers and epithets at the fifteen year-old girl.

Benjamin Fine of the New York Times had watched the entire seen unfold.
As he watched tears dribble down Elizabeth's cheeks, he couldn't help but think of his own fifteen-year old daughter. He sat down besides the girl and put his arm around her. Gently lifting her chin he said, "Don't let them see you cry."

Fine's actions are criticized in the book The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of the Nation. The writers of the book decry Fine as being "completely inappropriate" and "provocative." And in the traditional journalistic sense, the writers are right. Fine did step out of bounds and he may have provoked the angry crowd. He broke the rules of Journalism 101. But are his actions wrong?

In my mind, Fine did the right thing. He understood that his actions would break certain journalistic rules, but he also couldn't withhold his comfort from a scared young teenager. I'm sure at the end of the day, Fine felt no regret for sitting down on that bus bench and putting his arm around Elizabeth Eckford. Would he have felt the same way if he had remained a silent observer in the crowd?

I'm not one to judge when and where a reporter should lay down his journalist duties. I'm sure it is a very fine line of what is appropriate and what is not. But I am proud of Ben Fine for following his heart. Whether or not his actions were right or wrong, he did the best humanly thing. He stood up against hate.