Here’s an ethical dilemma. If a newspaper sets out to expose blatant exploitation, will it risk colluding in the very exploitation it is determined to reveal?
A fortnight ago, the Observer ran a double-page spread on the plight of the reclusive Jarawa people of the Andaman Islands. The tribe, just 403-strong, lives in a jungle reserve that is supposedly protected. A trunk road runs through the reserve, and while photography and human interaction are forbidden, police are accused of accepting bribes to encourage half-naked young women to dance for convoys of tourists and their video cameras.
An undercover Observer reporter joined a “tour” and saw people throwing biscuits and bananas at the Jarawa “as they would to animals in a safari park”. To illustrate his story, he obtained a video of the forced dancing from a tour operator. After the girls’ faces had been obscured by our web team and the policeman’s instructions translated and subtitled, it ran on the paper’s website and quickly attracted more than 500,000 hits, making it the second most viewed item that week. But some considered that to use the illicit video was to join in the very exploitation that the story set out to condemn.
Part of the problem was that the video appeared in two places on the site: as an illustration to the article, which placed the whole subject in context, and as a stand-alone film with very little context apart from a headline and introduction but, crucially, without a link to the main story. Some who saw this considered it exploitative, accusing the Observer of posting a prurient “look what we’ve found” video.
I put these concerns to Survival International, a body that campaigns on behalf of tribal peoples, and asked them how they use photographs and video on their website. “It is a dilemma,” said Sophie Grig, “but it is a sad fact that campaigns are not effective without pictures. However, we are careful only to use existing photographs rather than commission new ones.
“In this case, the results show that it was the right thing to do. The Jarawa quickly became the top news story in India with the government announcing an investigation and the minister for tribal affairs going on TV announcing that steps will be taken.
“It shocked people in India. I’ve been campaigning on this issue for 16 years but it was only after the Observer wrote the story and posted the video that things have taken off. I’m more hopeful today than I have ever been that we will see some action. I believe it was right to use it when it was presented in the context of the story.”
A follow-up article last week repeated the video and reported on the measures being taken by the Indian government to crack down on the “human safaris”. It also cited the number of hits the film had attracted. “Isn’t this the same as exploiting people?” asked a comment posted under the story. “The article seems almost proud of this statistic.”
The reporter replied: “No, I don’t think it is the same as exploiting them. It is a matter of highlighting a gross human rights abuse in a way that has drawn the attention of the Indian government. That has to be a good thing.
“The Indian home minister and the minister in charge of tribal welfare have expressed their anger about this abuse, which is widely regarded in India as a national shame.
“The Jarawa are Indian citizens too: they have rights and one of them is not to be treated as animals in a zoo.”
Our website’s technology dictates that to be able to embed a video in an article, an additional video page has to be generated, so special care needs to be taken to explain why the film is running on that page, with clear links to the main article.
As in so many things in life, it’s all a matter of context.
This column was originally published in The Observer on Jan. 21, 2012.