By Katie Nguyen
One of the best things about being a reporter is meeting people, but when you're covering conflicts and natural disasters, it can be one of the hardest as well.
Who hasn't been touched coming face to face with children too weak from hunger to lift their heads or frightened civilians caught up in shelling, or moved by the sight of old people too frail to flee to safety from storms or flooding?
For some, the urge to down their notepad or camera and do something is irresistible. Critics call it the "saviour syndrome".
How to guard against it and preserve your impartiality as a reporter merely observing and recording events, was just one of the topics under discussion at the London Literature Festival this month.
Taking part in the Art of War talk were former Reuters journalists Michela Wrong and Oliver Bullough, along with the BBC's former Sri Lanka correspondent Frances Harrison and freelance writer Bidisha.
It's not far-fetched to imagine journalists becoming campaigners, Bidisha suggested. "I ... feel that actually it's very tempting if you're a journalist to become an activist, particularly if you do international reporting because that can so easily turn into international human rights reportage and then advocacy," she said.
Which might be worthy but makes for one-dimensional copy, Harrison noted, adding: "If you start off with an opinion or a campaign ... it becomes quite predictable and quite tedious."
One way to preserve neutrality is to avoid using adjectives, Bullough said, repeating one of the golden rules of the Reuters training programme, and sounding as if he'd never left the company.
"If you start using adjectives then it's a slippery slope. Then you start using words like 'depressingly' and once you've used 'depressingly', it's a very short distance to using 'heartbreakingly'," he said.
AID WORKER OR JOURNALIST?
Bullough, who has written a book on the Caucasus, Let Our Fame Be Great, said that one of the good things British journalism training does is "teaches you you're only a journalist, you're not someone important".
After all, a basic principle of journalism is, "don't be a player in your own story", Wrong reminded the audience.
"Also, if you do suffer from 'saviour syndrome', you're only ever going to cover one story because how many times can you get that involved?" said Wrong, who also worked for the Financial Times before writing books on Congo, Eritrea and Kenya.
"You should have become an aid worker; you shouldn't have become a journalist."
But, in reality, the two can get confused.
It’s funny how some aid workers who blog, write articles and take video of their organisation's work describe themselves as journalists. And truly believe it - even when their material mostly describes the virtues of their charity and includes a pitch for donations.
Many wannabe journalists are equally misguided.
One of the things Wrong finds most alarming is how often journalism students tell her, 'I'd like go to Africa. I'm thinking of becoming an aid worker but I've also thought of becoming a journalist'.
"Why do you think those two jobs are so close?" she said. "They're not close at all."
EMBEDDED WITH THE OTHER SIDE
Wrong, who memorably referred to aid workers as "significance addicts", also cautioned against the practice of accepting freebie trips frequently offered by aid agencies hoping for more coverage of a project or two.
"These are very nice people who are often friends of yours - MSF, Save the Children, UNHCR, WFP. They fly you there, they put you up, they provide you with transport and they make sure you're safe and then they fly you back. Effectively it's a form of embedding," she said.
"You see everything from their perspective because you're having their experience, not your own."
Relying on NGOs for stories is just lazy journalism in many cases, Harrison added.
"I've known lots of journalists who do parachute into places," she said. "I remember in Bangladesh someone from the Today programme arriving and saying, 'I've just been to talk to Save the Children Fund to see what stories I can do'.
"Given that there were so many NGOs in Bangladesh, there was so much corruption, there was so much cynicism about them, there were lots of stories you could do without them very easily ... It was quite galling to see that this was their modus operandi."