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 HealthNewsReview.org 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.”]