BEAT THE PRESS
4:20 pm
Fri October 12, 2012

Malala Yousafzai and the Ethics of Covering Kids at Risk

On the Oct. 12 edition of Beat the Press, we're looking at media coverage of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was severely injured in a horrific attack by the Taliban earlier this week. Specifically, we're exploring the connection between the attention lavished on Yousafzai over the past few years, as she fought the Taliban's efforts to keep girls from going to school, and the attack that almost took her life.

I spoke today with Adam Ellick, who interviewed Malala for a New York Times documentary in 2009. At first, Ellick says, he was "terrified" to put Malala and her father Ziauddin on camera, given the precarious security situation in Pakistan's Swat Valley. 

But then, after conversations with his editor in New York and with a Pakistani colleague he trusted, Ellick changed his mind. For one thing, he says, the Yousafzais and their opposition to the Taliban's ban on female education had already been covered extensively by the local media. In addition, Ziauddin — who runs a private school — convinced him that he and Malala were already at risk. 

"Ziauddin was really nervous at the beginning," Ellick says. "But then he became gung-ho. I think he saw this as a platform for him. He basically relieved my fears entirely.... He said, 'The Taliban already knows me. They know where I live; they know my school. If they want to get me, they see me on TV every night.'"

"I gave them a heightened international stage," Ellick says. "But did the film create their public image and their fight and their campaign? Not so much."

But if Ellick doesn't think his film was directly responsible for the attack on Malala, he doesn't think the two are unconnected, either.

"I'm part of a system that continuously gave them awards and rewards over time," Ellick says, "which emboldened them and injected more confidence into them and made them more public, more brash and more outspoken."

Ellick cites an interview Malala did with the BBC about 6 months ago, during which she spoke about the Taliban far more aggressively than she had when they first met. When he filmed Malala and her father, Ellick recalls, "she spoke out — but they used to watch their words. They were careful but courageous."

But after Malala appeared in Ellick's film, and was revealed as the author of a pseudonymous blog written for BBC Urdu (apparently at her father's suggestion), and was nominated for the International Children's Peace Prize, her situation changed. Radically.

"The film, the international coverage, the blog — foreign bigwigs started coming to Swat," Ellick says. "Malala received awards; she received a lot of praise.... [The Yousafzais] saw results from their work and their risks, and they became more motivated, because they had incentives to keep going. That's the narrative, and I'm part of that narrative."

Watching Ellick's 2009 documentary today, in light of the recent attempt on her life, elicits some conflicting responses. The affection between father and daughter is palpable. But it also seems that Ziauddin is nudging his daughter into a life of activism that makes her wary — but which he has already embraced.

At one point, Malala says of her future: "I want to become a doctor; it's my own dream. But my father told me that you have to become a politician. But I don't like politics."

Ziauddin, however, is insistent. "But I see a great potential in my daughter — that she can do more than a doctor. She can create a society where a medical student would be easily able to get her doctoral degree."

Ultimately, the journalistic question raised by Malala Yousafzai's tragedy is this: when parents make their children vulnerable by placing them in the media spotlight, are journalists ever obligated to act in loco parentis and exercise restraint? And if so — when and how?

In Malala's case, at least, there's no easy answer. Perhaps the extensive coverage of Malala helped put her at risk. But it also highlighted her passionate and courage — and the brutality of the system she was fighting against. Whether that trade-off was worth it may depend, in the end, on whether she survives.  

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