Jason Buttrill, a Marine veteran employed by The Blaze, has been suspended after inserting himself into a story. While doing research in Iraq, he took shots at ISIS fighters, tweeting “Major bucket list completed. Shoot at #ISIS ? Check!” after the fact.
A key question here is Buttrill’s role as an employee of a news organization. An article on his trip to Iraq is still on The Blaze‘s website, and there he’s referred to as a researcher. He seems to be doing reporting, though the article has a correction stating that Buttrill was earlier identified as a correspondent, and that was edited to “line researcher.”
And herein lies the problem. Journalists are held to a standard of ethical practices, and part of that includes identifying what’s commentary and what is reporting and to be clear about potential conflicts of interest. For example, as I’ve explained on occasion, what I write is opinion pieces. And then there’s the “opinion” tag at my by-line. And that clarity is a requirement for any honest journalism. If we’re to accept claims of fact made by journalists, we need the assurance that advocacy and commentary won’t be passed off as facts.
So what Buttrill was doing in Iraq matters. Journalists are recommended by the Society of Professional Journalists not to insert themselves into the story, though even the SPJ recognizes that at times, a journalist’s humanity takes precedent, such as doing aid work while reporting on the natural disasters that have struck Haiti, for example. Setting up an event for the purpose of reporting on it is out of bounds, but bringing food or medical supplies into an earthquake zone while reporting is something that I’d regard as well within acceptable behavior for a journalist.
Except when giving aid crosses over into taking a side—in the Syrian conflict, say—and that’s why getting involved is tricky for someone attempting to be objective. But there’s another option: gonzo journalism, the kind of immersive research exemplified by Hunter S. Thompson’s riding with the Hell’s Angels or George Plimpton’s experience playing football with the Detroit Lions. As Guns.com‘s own Chris Eger reminds us, Ernest Hemingway did some fighting on the side of the Allies in World War II, and Joe Galloway ended up in the middle of a battle in Vietnam. How deep into the life a person who adopts this style of journalism is willing to go is a highly individual question, though just as with the technique of method acting, it’s important for the gonzo journalist to decide in advance what would be too far in moral terms—take following a drug dealer around vs. actually selling drugs as an illustration.
One concern raised about what Buttrill did is over the safety of journalists in war zones if some among them start taking an active role in the fighting. A parallel exists here with the organization, Médecins Sans Frontières, in that doctors enter areas of fighting to provide aid to anyone in need, but still get attacked. Attacks are similarly done on journalists, and the argument here is that if they start taking up arms and joining a side, that puts everyone in the profession at greater risk.