As aid flows to Haiti and the full scope of the disaster becomes clear, there is an interesting discussion happening among health journalists about the role of medical correspondents reporting from the scene of such disasters.
Physicians who work for television networks and have been sent to Haiti have been juggling their roles as doctors and reporters:
- CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta examined a 15-day-old baby on the air and did surgery on a girl with a skull fracture. After Belgian doctors dispatched to a field hospital later abandoned their post and patients, Gupta spent the night as the only physician stabilizing patients.
- NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman operated on people in a makeshift clinic.
- ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser, recently acting director of the CDC, helped a woman who had gone into labor.
- Dr. Jennifer Ashton of CBS assisted in surgery on a girl after who had undergone an amputation.
Footage of all of those correspondents treating patients has aired on their networks and Web sites, raising the question of whether “news organizations at some point appear to be capitalizing for promotional reasons on the intervention by journalists,” according to Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute.
Matea Gold, of the Los Angeles Times, reported on the topic and has thoughts from Steele, Snyderman, Besser and CNN’s president about the issue.
Gary Schwitzer, of the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, asks “Who teaches journalism ethics to physician-reporters?” and has “An examination of the ethics of MD-reporter involvement in Haiti.”
In an online chat today, three readers asked Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz about the medical and journalistic ethics of treating patients on camera. Kurtz responded that he has “mixed feelings” about it. Interestingly, on Kurtz’s CNN show, “Reliable Sources,” that aired on Sunday, he used a clip of Gupta examining the 15-day-old baby as an example of how the media is focusing on Haiti’s children but did not comment on the ethical issue of physician-journalists treating patients.
Cynics may sneer that Gupta’s decision to stay was a self-promotional act intended to boost ratings and his profile, that his nobility was inspired more by the eye of the camera than the Hippocratic oath. But don’t count me among those skeptics; I believe those lives were, literally, in Gupta’s hands, and he responded.
The Washington Post now has an article about reporters who double as doctors in Haiti that includes comments from the president of CBS News, who says “that competitive issues have factored in boosting Ashton’s role since Gupta became a star,” and from the director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin’s journalism school, who cautions that such coverage can become self-promotional.