I was recently assigned to cover a story this week that went against almost every fiber of my being. As most stories do, it started of with good intentions.
A SAD STORY
This 12 year old little boy has cancer, most probably terminal. Through The Wish for a dream foundation he was asked to name three of his dreams which the foundation would help him realize in this life time, as a positive affirmation to help him continue on the fight against disease. He only named one thing: ” I want to meet a sniper” he said.
Seven months later… his dream came true. Reach for a dream through the help of the South African Police Service (SAPS) was able to answer his dream. Instead of just arranging for a simple meeting between a real-life sniper and the boy, they figured to go all out for him and offer him a much richer experience.
They invited the young boy on a special mission: “operation – damsel in distress”. Where he would be part of the the SAPS’s special task force – a team of professional snipers – simulated training exercises which involved… jumping off a plane… parachuting down into the bush… going to simulated “battle” in the bush with real bombs going off real guns being shot. We the media “hand-picked” as we were asked to stay in the army Caspars – because it was a “dangerous’ outside. Even my colleague and camera-man got a fright while shooting the simulated battle scene and ran away with is camera.
There were parts of the simulated exercise which we never got to observe as the media, to prevent national security breaches. Inside the “hostage’ house one could hear, gun fire .. loud noise and screams. While inside the boy was given a real rifle to fire a real sniper gun”
He came out poised, confident with a smile on his face. His moment had arrived and he was ready for it. I asked him how do you feel ? He said “this is the day I will never forget” soon after he jumped off a chopper and was greeted by his parents and younger sister who watched on as the boy lived out his wildest dreams. The Special Task Force stood in Salute to the little boy, who was congratulated by the Head of the Special task force for completing his “mission” successfully.
I watched on and I could feel the war brewing inside me. I was dreaming in my head that I would get a chance to speak to him, and say hopefully you’ll grow up to be a sniper of a different kind – like a camera man – when he said ” When I grow up I want to be one of them” . I asked him why he wanted to be a sniper and his answer was more calculated that I had imagined ” It’s silent- you can never be seen, and you can shoot from far” What did you like about the experience another journalist asked ” there was guns, bombs everything you can ever dream of” he said nodding with such confidence I was sure he will definitely grow up to be one of them. What can you tell others about your experience she continued ” All I want to say is, don’t forget your dreams and I really liked it, very much”.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE
I was so conflicted I was on the verge of telling my editor that I really can’t do the story as for me that would amount to advocating for violence. A sniper is not just a nice sounding smooth English word. A sniper is a professional killer. A person skilled and trained to shoot at others from a concealed space. ” To be a sniper you require, discipline, it is highly skilled profession” said a senior journalist when I asked her about my ethical dilemma, “Would you say the same of a doctor who does botox?” she asked ” A doctor who insertsbotox into adult men and women who one assumes are mentally ready and stable to deal with the consequences, and you’re not killing people” I responded, already feeling that I was attempted to fight a battle I had already lost. “Yes but we need snipers to protect governments, to protect the state, we can’t have a state without snipers, its not the shooting that’s the problem, it’s the ideology” she said “You are censoring his dreams, it’s not your dream, it’s his dream, you can’t choose his dream for him”. “Just treat it as a light story” said my editor insisting that we cover the story. I had asked the boy where he got the idea of being a sniper from – from television he said.
TWO STEPS BACK
I was told to “take a step back” remove yourself from the story. I had a number of problems with it. I wondered if we as the media should not hold ourselves accountable for what we present on television. If a 34 year old man said his dying wish was to be a killer we might think twice about it, but not with organized violence – licensed violence – and a little 12 year old’s dream. The army and the police have a license too, then it’s fine, then you can dream about it and we’ll all go out of our way to make sure that your dreams of killing people are fulfilled.
I really don’t want to sensor anyone. It’s not my place that is true.
But what does this story say about us, the media, the police, the reach for a dream foundation, , society, his parents? That a 12 year old’s “dying” wish is to “kill”?
I thought that I probably don’t/shouldn’t do the story – because I don’t support violence, i’m against exposing children to violence, to guns, to bombs, to war. “Maybe you’re judgement is being clouded by the fact that you’ve been to war” . ” This is a positive story” we were told by police and army officials, so be mindful. We probably didn’t need to broadcast his experience…because the would have meant free advertising ” join the country’s top killers” or “Protect Your Country – Join the Army” unless we need more Snipers. The Major General said they’re not too busy… they train everyday just to stay current and be among the best snipers in the world. “objectivity is the aim of journalism “. “Our job is to Observe and Report” not to have views or to “think”. I started to wonder if I’m not perhaps in the wrong profession. “Don’t judge – just let the story tell itself” . “think of yourself as a little 12 year old with a dream”
Yes I would very much like to be rescued by trained professionals where I to find myself in a hostage situation – operation damsel in distress.
So I removed myself from the story and told it as it was, a story about a boy whose dream came true. But this experience left me with more questions than answers.
What do you think?