In Haiti this past week, American networks featured their medical correspondents acting as both reporter and doctor, often simultaneously. On CNN, CBS, NBC and ABC, newsmen and women became part of the story, raising ethical questions both medical and journalistic. A former television news producer, a former medical reporter and media ethicists weigh in.
Artist: by Vic Chesnutt
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is still out, allegedly writing a book. I'm Bob Garfield. In Haiti, more than a week after the earthquake the story is increasingly about the health of the survivors. Medical personnel from around the world have converged there in large numbers, beginning with the medical correspondents of TV news. Here’s CBS, NBC and ABC:
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Just hours ago our own doctor, Jennifer Ashton, landed in Port au Prince, Haiti. She hit the ground running, immediately assisting in an amputation at the U.N. hospital compound. She’s joining us live…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Our chief medical editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, went to Haiti to treat patients. She spent the day with them again today.
ROBIN ROBERTS: Dr. Richard Besser is in Port-au-Prince where he was needed on Sunday. And, Rich, you helped a woman in labor, didn't you?
BOB GARFIELD: When the events are too catastrophic and the humanitarian effort to intervene so colossal, the sheer scale can render the story literally incomprehensible. That’s where TV news comes in, focusing its lens on individual dramas that stand for the overwhelming whole.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA: Well, she’s moving both of her arms, that’s a good sign. She’s moving both of her legs. She has a pretty significant laceration here. And what I need to make sure is that she doesn't have a skull fracture underneath. The good news is I don't, I don’t think she does. So that’s, that’s good.
BOB GARFIELD: That’s CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta attending to an injured little girl. It is a very compelling story, hopeful and ominous, alarming and soothing, joyful and terribly sad. To watch this cable news star in the moment, not as reporter but as healer, is simply irresistible.
NEAL SHAPIRO: In situations like these kinds of disasters, it’s what television does very well.
BOB GARFIELD: Neal Shapiro, president of WNET Public Television in New York, was longtime executive producer of Dateline NBC, and later president of the network.*
NEAL SHAPIRO: The combination of great words and great pictures together is something that is so visceral that I think it really does let the audience understand and feel what’s happening. And there’s nothing, frankly, wrong with having [LAUGHS] a story which is really important and also has drama built into it because that does get people more interested, and it’s easier to tell those stories.
BOB GARFIELD: Hence, the parade of camera crews following TV doctors doctoring. Dramatic, heartwarming and inspiring, it is also rife with ethical conflicts, both medical and journalistic.
PROFESSOR GARY SCHWITZER: I think back to my first job in television news 35 years ago, and the crusty old veteran reporters I worked with and learned from drilled into me that, kid, you are not the story.
BOB GARFIELD: Professor Gary Schwitzer teaches journalism ethics at the University of Minnesota, where he also monitors press coverage of medical issues as publisher of Health News Review.
GARY SCHWITZER: Either be the physician and leave the microphone and camera behind, or be the reporter and do not report on one’s self giving care.
BOB GARFIELD: One reason for reporters not injecting themselves in the story is that the gimmick often obscures and trivializes the actual news. But it also immediately obliterates journalistic distance and any measure of objectivity. Bob Steele, a journalism ethicist at DePaul University, points to Gupta who in Haiti encountered a field hospital after the Belgian medical staff was pulled out after dark for security reasons.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA: What is so striking to me as a physician, Anderson, and I’m reporting the story for some time now, is that patients who just had surgery, patients who are critically ill, are essentially being left here and nobody to care for them.
[DR. GUPTA SPEAKING/UP AND UNDER]
BOB STEELE: Gupta said I'm the only physician here, it’s a very difficult situation. He stayed overnight and cared for the patients.
DR. SANJAY GUPTA: There have been concerns for the last couple of days about a mob mentality, there’ve been concerns about looting. I haven't seen any of these things with my own eyes, but apparently it was enough to have the U.N. essentially evacuate these doctors. And so many people…
BOB STEELE: And, in fact, his original account that the U.N. was responsible for pulling out those Belgian medical personnel I believe turned out to be incorrect. To have him reporting on that situation at the same time he was a key player in it is unwise from a journalistic, independent standpoint.
BOB GARFIELD: But once again, great TV. And once Gupta performed surgeries on camera while embedded with an Army unit in Iraq, it was hardly the kind of TV the other networks were going to cede to CNN. While Neal Shapiro says he knows of no TV news bosses pushing medical correspondents to look for on-camera hero opportunities, a top CBS news exec told The Washington Post this week, quote, “We're guilty of the appalling sin of competing.” Well, no wonder, as Dr. Bob Arnot, former chief medical correspondent for NBC News, well understands.
DR. BOB ARNOT: It’s amazing theater. It’s really the most incredible theater that there is in television today, to have, you know, your correspondent doctor out there treating somebody in the field.
BOB GARFIELD: Yet, when Arnot intervened medically and bureaucratically in Iraq, in Rwanda, in Aceh, Indonesia, he did so almost entirely with the cameras switched off.
DR. BOB ARNOT: Look, the real risk is here that your producer calls up and says, hey we just saw the other network’s doctor deliver a baby, could you do an amputation. There’s a real risk that doctors could be pushed into things they shouldn't be doing because of the pressure of the suits or the producers, to just get better ratings.
BOB GARFIELD: Things they shouldn't do, he says, such as treating somebody in the street who can just as easily and more safely be attended to at a clinic or hospital, and such as exploiting the pain of an earthquake victim, not to mention the emotions of the audience, for three minutes of drama, genuine or otherwise.
DR. BOB ARNOT: Absolutely, I mean, look-it. If this happened on the streets of New York, do you think you could do that with the current HIPAA regulations? So, sure, you’re potentially exploiting the patient, and you are becoming more of a showman than you are a medical doctor out there.
BOB GARFIELD: Or maybe, the prime canon of medicine just needs an update. Do no harm, but first [WHISPERING] roll the tape.
[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] *Correction - Neal Shapiro was not the president of NBC, but the president of NBC's News Division.