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Should Journalists Who Witness Killings Try and Stop Them?

A new killing in South Africa raises the question about when it's right to intervene to try and save a life.

The still above was taken from a new video on the New York Times website. It depicts a hundreds-strong mob in Diepsloot, South Africa, attacking a man they falsely accused of being a thief. Farai Kujirichita was actually an innocent Zimbabwean immigrant, but when the mob swarmed on him, they beat him with sticks until he was dead.

The beating is terrifying in and of itself, but the video gets all the more shocking when it fades to black and a frame of text reads, "This video was provided to The New York Times by a freelance journalist who lives in Diepsloot." It's not every day one hears about a mob killing, but when one does, and when a horrified journalist was watching the whole thing, isn't it important to ask why the journalist did nothing?

The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma advises journalists who arrive to a violent scene: "It’s not your role to act as professional responder unless someone’s life is in danger." Kujirichita was hit more than 200 times with a wooden plank, and with each blow his life grew more and more endangered. If Dart is correct, Golden Mtika, the journalist who came upon Kujirichita, should have stepped in. Alas, he didn't.

Ten American states currently have "duty to rescue" laws on the books (sometimes called "good Samaritan laws"), which compel citizens to at least call the police or run to get help if there's a person in distress. Mtika did phone the police while he videotaped the beating, and the cops eventually arrived. But by then Kujirichita was taking his last breaths. So Mtika then phoned Barry Bearak, the New York Times' bureau chief for southern Africa, who ended up titling his article on the killing, "Watching the Murder of an Innocent Man."

There are a lot of questions to unpack here, particularly about what a journalist's job really is. It's to depict the world as it is, of course, but is it also to intervene and fix things when you can?

In 2009, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Berrett ended up lying in a pool of his own blood after he came to the aid of a woman and child being attacked by a man with a metal pipe. The attack happened at a fair, where security and police were surely present, but Berrett didn't wait for them. He dove in fist first and very possibly saved two people's lives.

No doubt it's good that Mtika was able to capture Kujirichita's attack on film, thus providing the world with a glimpse at a nation in peril. And I'm quite certain Mtika was terrified of the beating before him (the shaky camera work is a testament to that). But isn't it more haunting, and in a more sustained way, to know that you could have saved a person's life instead of videotaping the carnage for a newspaper?

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