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Western reporters in Africa struggle over when to help

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It was three school-age siblings, orphaned by AIDS and fending for themselves in rural Swaziland, who were the last straws. They finally made Canadian reporter Stephanie Nolen question the age-old journalistic principle of not giving help to people she encounters while reporting.

Every morning these kids, whom Ms. Nolen met last year, would put on their school uniforms and stand outside their home, watching other children go to school. They couldn't follow because they didn't have money for school fees.

Years of seeing such situations finally got to Nolen. During a "somewhat sleepless night," she argued with herself: "I can't do this, it's a slippery slope." But in the morning she made a beeline for an ATM and withdrew $150, enough for all three to go to school for a year.

Daily journalism involves many dilemmas. But Western reporters covering developing countries often face unique conundrums: A little humanity - just the change in their pockets - can sometimes feed 10 or 20 people. Such giving can violate a basic tenet of journalism: Observe, don't engage. It's a cornerstone of the effort to stay objective. But Western reporters often ask themselves: Should I help anyway?

The questions have current relevance: The recent Oscar- nominated documentary, "The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club," details a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer's decline to suicide after photographing a starving African child with a vulture waiting ominously in the background. Even Mr. Carter's mother wondered why he hadn't helped the child.

For Nolen, that day in Swaziland marked a turning point, even though she never even wrote about those orphaned kids. Her new policy is: "There is no policy," says Nolen, who has covered Africa for Canada's Globe and Mail for seven years - and won two National Newspaper Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize. Since Swaziland, she's become more willing to try to help those in need. That doesn't mean, however, that she violates the "really strict journalistic principle" prohibiting anything that smacks of buying peoples' stories - such as offering money before an interview.

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