Reporters Doubling as Docs in Haiti

Dual roles raise concerns about journalistic ethics

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.

The incident at the field hospital presented a much different situation than one Gupta had encountered while treating the fifteen-day-old baby just two days earlier, however. In that instance, Gupta rushed to the scene after hearing reports that people were “begging for a doctor.” He then examined the child, concluding that it had sustained a “significant laceration” (i.e. a nasty cut) on its head, but no other injuries.

Should Gupta have responded? Absolutely, media experts who debated the issue online seem to agree. The real question is, should CNN have run a four-minute video covering an incident that had essentially no news value? The answer there seems to be a fairly resolute no.

“Frankly, it isn’t much of a story,” Steele told the Los Angeles Times. “You can’t help but look at this and worry there is a marketing element in it.”

Others agree. Gary Schwitzer, who runs the highly regarded Web site, posted a useful discussion of the journalists-vs-doctors debate on his blog, quoting Ivan Oransky, the executive editor of Reuters Health, who is also an M.D. Said Oransky:

When you’re the only specialist – or even doctor – around for miles, treating victims of wars and natural disasters you come across is the natural human inclination. I actually think it’s both understandable and justifiable, and probably even commendable. But where these episodes start to worry me is when networks start making their doctors’ heroics into the story, and then pound viewers with clips repeatedly. That’s what all the networks are doing now. What I’m not in favor of is the reporter becoming the story, and the episode turning into marketing. It smacks of all kinds of exploitation, and it throws independence and skepticism into serious question. There are already enough forces eroding those principles.

In an article following up on its initial blog post on the subject, the Los Angeles Times reported that NBC’s Nancy Snyderman “spent much of the weekend without her camera crew, triaging patients and setting broken bones with cardboard and gauze” and agonizes over how best to use her time.

“Morally, I have a responsibility to help people,” she told the Times. “From a journalistic standpoint, I have a responsibility to tell stories. And in between is a very delicate balance that I wrestle with.”

Likewise, Paul Friedman, executive vice president for CBS News (which sent correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton to Haiti), told the Times that “he normally would agree that a reporter should not wear two hats on a story, ‘but in this case I can’t conceive of a conflict we couldn’t figure out and remedy,’ adding that he thinks the audience benefits from the first-person storytelling.”

Friedman told The Washington Post (which noted that playing the twin roles of doctor and journalist “might be a reflection of the Gupta Effect”) that “competitive issues have factored in boosting Ashton’s role since Gupta became a star (‘We’re guilty of the appalling sin of competing,’ he says), but that her work speaks for itself: ‘I have not seen anything in her reporting that says her participation has hurt her work. She hasn’t pulled any punches.’”

For his part, Gupta said on CNN on Sunday, “I don’t think our intention is to ever make the story about myself. I think people innately understand that there is a tremendous medical need down here, and if you can help, you should help.”

While that is undoubtedly true, there is an old saying about good intentions and the road they pave. With that in mind, newsrooms should, as Schwitzer wisely recommended, have conversations about journalism ethics “before events take place - not during or after.” Journalist-doctors going into situations like the one Haiti should, in other words, have a pre-existing sense of when to intervene in medical emergencies and when not to, as well as when to cover those events and when not to.

[Update — 1/25, 1:30 p.m.: The Society of Professional Journalists, one of the U.S.’s largest and oldest journalism organizations, issued the following statement on Jan. 22 regarding journalists’ work as physicians in Haiti:

“The Society of Professional Journalists applauds the efforts of all journalists in Haiti who are working tirelessly to report the aftermath of last week’s devastating earthquake and the ensuing aftershocks. However, SPJ cautions journalists to avoid making themselves part of the stories they are reporting. Even in crises, journalists have a responsibility to their audiences to gather news objectively and to report facts.”]

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.