Operating Theater

Friday, January 22, 2010


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.

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Comments [13]

caleb f

this story is very deep i havent seen on the news or in the paper this explain an answer a great amount question i had. it shows the true medical attention needed there

Dec. 10 2010 10:26 AM
Ryan Meyer from Melbourne Australia

Thank you so much for running this story. It seems to me that there is a spectrum of reporters injecting themselves into the Haiti story, and that the doctors are at least doing more good than many others.

For example, here in Melbourne we are regularly subjected to an ad for Channel 7 News that features a particularly shameless act. The reporter and crew hover over the scene of a young child being pulled from the rubble. Once the kid is pulled free, the reporter practically grabs the girl from the arms of her rescuers (while checking to make sure the cameras are rolling); and then turns to the camera, adopting a look of concern while dousing the kid with a squirt from a bottle of water. What a f#$&ing hero.

The whole thing almost looks staged. Either way, it is outrageously shabby. This stuff makes me want to throw things at the TV.

Jan. 28 2010 07:43 PM
Michael Carraher from Philadelphia, PA

An interesting piece, which raises a larger issue worthy of being explored: The hiring of members of an occupational group to report on the members of that group and their activities. It probably started with hiring retired jocks to report on sports. But now we have physicians "reporting" on "medicine," lawyers "reporting" on the courts and politicians "reporting" on politics.

First, these people are members of the club. Can they even hope to maintain a detached or disinterested perspective?

Second, it seems there is some value in having a professional "communicator" (journalist), as an informed lay person, getting a source to explain highly technical and complex material to an outsider, so the outsider, in turn, can report the matter in terms everyone can understand and appreciate. As part of this, the outsider who is more representative of the audience can better ask their questions and get past the kind of assumptions and group-think that become part of any professional community.

It also seems to demean journalism as a craft or an art to bring in somebody from some other field and think they can practice journalism without the kind of preparation and experience a journalist for a major news organization normally would have. Just because something looks easy, doesn't mean anybody can do it.

Jan. 28 2010 05:16 PM
Dr Zaglossus

Thank you for mentioning this particular difficulty. It is one thing for the physician to abide by primary duty - as a physician rather than a journalist. The concern comes also when the journalist - medical or not - becomes a commentator, e.g. Anderson Cooper:"It's just stupid that " people do not have the medical care one might in in NYCity. The question is when the producer/camera people opt to film a medical encounter, e.g., the check of the 15 d child.
Or the concern of difficulty of supplies to medical facilities, rather than voice outrage, I noted no mention of the AID/Air Force understanding that they would run the airport to get planes safely down (and up) but were not responsible for delivery of the supplies unloaded. Instead, diatribes continued about how the assistance at the airport did not extend to the medical facilities that sprang up willynilly.

Similarly, when refugees request medical care, do the reporters convey any information about where medical clinics have been noted? It seems not. Rather selective in when/what journalists insert themselves and not.

Jan. 25 2010 05:38 PM
Jim W.

Boy, was I glad to hear your report on this. For the past two weeks since the disaster, my wife and I would comment on how these "celebrity" doctors/reporters were in fact taking advantage of the opportunity to self-promote the fact that they are real doctors. As I flipped through each of the network news, I found my disbelief that these reporters would beef up their own credentials as "heroic."

First I was appalled when I saw the rush of anchors heading to Haiti mostly to build promos that they were there when it counted. I never saw them rushing off to Southeast Asia when Indonesia was hit by earthquake/tsunami. Perhaps, because Haiti was in our backyard, it was cheaper to send them there and get a bigger bang for their buck.

Jan. 25 2010 01:31 PM
Dr. Ann R. Bleefeld from New York City

The comment by D. Douglas notwithstanding, kudos to OTM for ITS reportage on reportage! The networks have an interest in pushing their own and have seemingly lowered their standards in order to do just that. When doctors aggrandize themselves in the midst of human tragedy, well, that's a tragedy. Whey can't Sanjay Gupta simply do a job without self reference? Why can he not illustrate the physical effects of the earthquake, pointing out salient needs of the suffering citizens? The same goes for the ABC M.D. who helped deliver a baby to a 15 year-old in Haiti.

It is tasteless at best, demeaning to the suffering, and, at worst, dulls the impact of such horrific events.

Jan. 25 2010 11:13 AM
D. Douglas from Berkeley, Ca.

Couldn't disagree more. It would be immoral for doctors on the scene of a catastrophe such as this NOT to help. If networks benefit, so what? Although I will agree that, under the circumstances, one wonders why any of the TV doctors is wasting time reporting.

Re the Belgian doctors leaving: I have yet to hear any explanation other than security concerns (and I've watched coverage on France 5, Rai, Globo, and various Spanish (U.S. and LatAM) networks.) If the information is incorrect, it's not because Gupta was distracted from his journalist duties by his obligations as a physician but because on-the-scene news reports often contain errors. Remember Katrina?physicians .

Re the number of journalists: again, based on all the coverage I've seen, getting planes into the airport has not been the major problem. Getting supplies from the airport and, now, the port, to Haitians has been. (And Haiti is full of reporters from around the world, not just the U.S.) One does wish, however, that the reporters would carry supplies (at least water) with them when they interview the survivors.

Gupta actually got medical supplies. Was it a news stunt? Sure. Did the stunt produce real help? Yes. In fact, if all it took was a dedicated "reporter", I wish CNN had just rolled up a track and handed a bag to every reporter on the scene.

I am no special fan of Gupta. His "reporting" on health care legislation and the new mammography standards has been pitiful at best and nearly criminal at worst (incoherent, incorrect, inexact, etc.). But if we are going to have physicians acting as reporters on location at disasters like what is going on in Haiti, I'd rather they actually act, at least part-time, as physicians than as full-time journalists (which they are not).

Jan. 24 2010 06:25 PM
ann viera from knoxville tn

Too many journalists have arrived in Haiti taking up crucial resources. I don't need multiple stories about the disaster nor will I look at them or read them. I need the most appropriate aid to get there quickly. The physician journalists and the reporters and politicians (Why would Mrs. Clinton need to go there early in the disaster given the security and support services that have to go with her?) on site have lost track of what is most important in a disaster, the people directly involved. I immediately began to turn off or not read stories about the Haitian earthquake once it became clear that too many journalists were flocking to Haiti. To do so makes me complicit in helping to delay aid where it is needed most. It's shocking. What can it take to make common sense prevail?

I agree with Mr. Clark.

Jan. 24 2010 11:01 AM
Larry Clark from Vienna, VA

The last statement in the story was "Do no harm."

Beyond the issues of exploiting suffering for ratings and reporters becoming part of the story, consider:

When an individual decides to report and provide medical services during the most urgent period of a post-incident response, there is some time juggling going on. When that individual is going to and from the different sites, writing/reviewing the story, talking to the folks back at home base, setting up the standup shots, getting makeup (or at least a little straightened up) waiting for the satellite, and recording/broadcasting -- that person is not available for medical duties. To the extent that victims continue to experience pain and suffering (perhaps death) because the reporter is denying them medical services -- that IS causing harm.

I think these people should have their licenses reviewed.

Jan. 24 2010 07:20 AM
Bob Garfield

wow, i hope you listen to your patients better than you listened to this piece. the issue isn't whether medical correspondents should practice medicine in the midst of a catastrophe. the question is whether they should be turning that into a TV spectacle.
the HIPA reference was exactly to the point; of COURSE you were right to treat that seizure victim. but to take pictures of the treatment and release them in public would have been an unlawful violation of the patient's privacy.

your last point is well taken. however it is a practice generally frowned upon. i myself have done many first-person stories, but always and only for light features when the journalistic stakes were extremely low.

Jan. 23 2010 11:09 PM
Sonni from manhattan

This report made me really angry. CNN's medical correspondent is a practicing neurosurgeon and he says himself he is a doctor first. I don't think you can evaluate medical journalists during a medical disaster the same way as any other journalist. Also, when the Belgian physicians abondoned those patients and some of them after major surgery is it really even a question that whoever is around qualified to help these people help. That CNN doctor did not ask for the Begian doctors to leave and what proof is there that the CNN doctor's misreport about why the Belgian doctors left had anything to do with his involvement as a medical personnel. And the last commentor who was talking about in New York due to HIPPA regulations we wouldn't just treat somebody on the street so why these medical reporters doing it in Haiti. Hello, we are talking about Haiti after an earthquake that was the most ridiculous comparison I have ever heard. Even when there is no major natural disaster HIPAA type regulations is not even an issue in this country. Also, during the blackout a few years ago when I (I am a physician) was walking home I assisted someone who was having a seizure and I was not thinking OMG I am violating HIPAA so I can only imagine what these medical journalists must be feeling surrounded by all these people who so deperately need medical help and there are not enough medical staff. Also don't other reporters sometimes become part of the story (ie work in a minimumwage factory for a day to see what it is like) to get a perspective they wouldn't get by standing aside and being passive and solely objective

Jan. 23 2010 10:14 PM
Brenda from New Jersey USA

I believe that if one has the ability to provide ANY type of help, one SHOULD HELP. If TV news don't want to have their reporters to show the live story, then they should ask the reporters to provide help OFF air or edit it themselves. However, I do think that people will become more aware about what is really happening in Haiti.

Jan. 23 2010 12:59 PM
Gary Schwitzer from Minnesota

An addendum: The Society of Professional Journalists late this week released a statement urging journalists to "report the story but don't become part of it."


Jan. 23 2010 12:04 PM

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