On sending physician-journalists to cover disasters

Just after the Haiti earthquake the medical correspondents for some TV news organizations were filmed treating victims of the disaster, and a minor dustup ensued. CNN reporter Sanjay Gupta, a neurosurgeon, was pictured examining a tiny child with head injuries, and other network doctor-journalists were providing care at the same time they were chronicling the staggering misery that has engulfed tens of thousands of Haitians.

Were they there to cover the tragedy or treat the wounded? Are those roles in conflict?

Now, this raises a perennial question that bedevils news people—to what degree does their work as journalists permit them, or even obligate them, to act in ways that would otherwise seem wrong. The fact is, journalism is fraught with moral ambiguities.

In the 1969 Haskell Wexler film “Medium Cool,” one of the great media movies, a woman was describing a documentary set on a Pacific island where an H-bomb had been tested, which featured doomed turtles. Disoriented by radiation, they were filmed heading off into the bone-dry interior of the island instead of back into the sea. The woman asked, when the cameraman was done filming, did he reach down and turn the turtles around? Or would that have made the footage of dying turtles a fraud?

A few years ago, at an ethics conference I hosted at my school, Washington and Lee University, a seasoned newsman offered a hypothetical: Suppose you’re covering a relief operation distributing food in the outback of a Third World country, the truck is surrounded by desperate villagers and the head of the convoy tells you you’d better put down your notepad and help hand out supplies or there would be a riot.

At this conference was the ex-managing editor of The New York Times, the late Gerald Boyd, and while some of us had a hard time imagining why the reporter wouldn’t help, Boyd took a different tack: Maybe, he said, this one time. But you couldn’t let it become a habit.

Why not? Let me confess that when it comes to whether professional ethics trumps basic morality, I’m a skeptic. To me, the person who arrives first at a crash site should render aid, even if she’s a journalist, and anyone who can pull a child out of the river should do so, even if it would interfere with the news event—a drowning—he’d otherwise report.

But Boyd had a point. The journalist has a uniquely valuable job to do. That food distribution might be politically motivated, and the reporter who lends a hand might be serving a government that’s exploiting hunger cynically. Too, the reporter might be talking to hungry people about their grievances instead of throwing them sacks of rice.

The point is that principled, compassionate media coverage can be an immensely powerful resource to reduce suffering and do real good, and there are times when turning away from immediate need is an expression not of indifference but of compassion and commitment.

But I think the physician-reporter case is quite different. Although the criticisms of Gupta and his peers came from journalists who feared that they were either grandstanding or becoming part of the story they were covering, those seem secondary points.

Why were they there in the first place? An earthquake isn’t a medical story. Physician-journalists are on staff to provide a sophisticated understanding of medical science, clinical practice, or health advice. The story in Haiti was the adequacy and effectiveness of a massive international aid effort. You no more need a doctor to cover that than you need a food writer to cover a famine.

But if they bring no special competence to covering disaster relief, they do bring a unique skill set suited for something even more urgent: medical care. In that regard, a licensed MD in a devastated city who is doing anything other than giving care is running afoul not of journalism ethics, but of medical ethics. That’s especially the case if what the doctor is doing instead of saving lives (such as standing in front of TV cameras and bemoaning the lack of doctors) is something that could be done perfectly well by a non-physician.

Interestingly, when Gupta was asked about his priorities, he told Larry King, “I’m a doctor first.”

Good. Maybe the next time, the networks rich enough to employ physicians as journalists will send them to the disaster zone not to offer commentary about a medical emergency that a dozen other staff journalists could cover, but to help care for the people who need it.

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