Prominent television journalists who are also certified doctors have been treating injured patients amidst the recovery and relief efforts in Haiti, sparking debate about journalistic ethics and the role of M.D. medical correspondents in crisis situations.
The trend has emerged as a significant storyline this week. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that:
For the first time, all of the major domestic TV news networks have deployed doctor-reporters to the scene of a natural disaster, producing a dramatic kind of participatory journalism. Jennifer Ashton, CBS News’s medical correspondent and a doctor, assisted with the treatment of a teenage girl whose arm had been amputated. NBC’s Nancy Snyderman, a surgeon, has spent days splinting broken bones, while ABC’s Richard Besser, a doctor formerly affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped a woman deliver a premature baby.
CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta has also donned his physician’s cap in Haiti. The Association of Healthcare Journalists blog has an excellent roundup of clips of him and the others jumping into action, as well as links to related commentary about whether or not they should be doing so.
Gupta got the debate rolling two days after the 7.0 earthquake struck, when CNN published a four-minute video report on its Web site that showed him examining a fifteen-day-old baby with a minor head injury whose mother had died in the quake. The Los Angeles Times covered the story the same day, in a blog post that raised questions about whether or not Gupta had violated journalistic ethics.
“There definitely are cases where a journalist who is qualified can and should provide medical assistance when the need is immediate and profound,” Bob Steele, a journalism values scholar at The Poynter Institute and journalism professor at DePauw University, told the Times. “If it’s imperative that he intervene and help medically, then take him out of his journalistic role and do that. But don’t have him covering the same stories in which he’s a participant. It muddles the journalistic reporting. It clouds the lens in terms of the independent observation and reporting.”
The Times’s post noted that this wasn’t the first time that Gupta had “brought his medical skills to bear on assignment. In 2003, while embedded with the U.S. Navy’s ‘Devil Docs’ medical unit in Iraq, he performed brain surgery five times.” As he headed to Haiti last week, Gupta penned a Tweet reading, “Yes, I am a reporter, but a doctor first.”
More often than not, however, it seems that Gupta prefers to play both roles at once. He became part of the story again on Friday night after a Belgian medical team evacuated a field hospital due to security concerns, leaving the correspondent as the only doctor on site. According to CNN, Gupta—assisted by other CNN staffers, security personnel, and at least one Haitian nurse who refused to leave—helped the twenty-five patients in the hospital live through the night. At 3:45 a.m., he posted a message on Twitter reading, “pulling all nighter at haiti field hosp. lots of work, but all patients stable. turned my crew into a crack med team tonight.” That crew also did some filming, however, which CNN ran in addition to a couple of articles about the affair.
“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,” Salon’s Dr. Rahul K. Parikh commented on Saturday. “But don’t count me among those skeptics; I believe those lives were, literally, in Gupta’s hands, and he responded. In addition to the 25 patients dropped in his lap, Gupta also stabilized a few more patients who trickled in during the middle of the night. None of them died on his watch. That’s good, hard work, and he deserves praise for it.”
Gupta originally reported that the United Nations had ordered the Belgian medical team to evacuate its post. CNN later issued a correction stating that the team’s chief coordinator had made the decision to leave, accepting a U.N. offer to evacuate the team. Regardless, the fact that the Belgian doctors abandoned their post at the field hospital (until Saturday morning, at least) would seem to indicate that Gupta had little choice but to stay and help. Moreover, the team’s decision and the unexpected nature of Gupta’s predicament rendered the affair newsworthy, so CNN’s decision to cover its correspondent in action appears legitimate.