CBC radio on journalism ethics of MD-reporter involvement in Haiti

The CBC radio program “As It Happens” began its discussion of this issue with this introduction:

“It is a dramatic image: a reporter who is also a qualified medical doctor springing into action to perform first aid on someone hurt in the Haiti earthquake — and in some cases, going as far as to perform surgery. All of it during a news report.

And while a physician correspondent giving medical assistance to those injured in a natural disaster is commendable, it does raise some ethical issues about the role of journalists.”

They then interviewed me for more than 8 minutes. You can listen to it by downloading this file.

There have been countless articles on this topic this week – many missing the journalism ethics point that many concerned journalists have raised. As I have consistently tried to point out, an ethical middle ground would appear to be this: Physician-reporters should render care if they are so moved but they should not report on themselves doing so.

Broadcasting & Cable is an industry magazine. On their website appeared these comments from TV network executives:

“Steve Capus, president of NBC News, expressed outrage that ethicists would question the judgment of medical reporters who have a unique capacity to help in the face of so much human suffering.

“I’d love for (Poynter Institute Journalism Values Scholar & DePauw University Professor) Bob Steele to have to pick up the phone and [lecture] Nancy Snyderman on the journalistic ethics of driving past a kid who can’t walk anymore because he has a crushed leg,” says Capus.

“Where would you draw the line? How does one remain absolutely 100 percent objective and say, I’m not going to go near that child who can’t walk any further? You don’t need to be objective about human suffering. If someone is trained as a medical doctor and they help, good for them. That’s the right thing to do.”

Frankly, I’d love to hear Bob Steele (who has been quoted this week with concerns about what he’s seen) do that as well. But, first, he wouldn’t “lecture” in the heavy-handed manner that Capus’ quote suggests. He would guide Snyderman through the complex decision-making about exactly the questions Capus raises about where to draw the line and how one alternative path is to simply provide care without promoting yourself and your network in the process. This is something that Steele has done with hundreds of journalists in past years.

The online B&C quotes continued:

Paul Friedman, executive VP at CBS News, says news executives asked themselves all the right questions before letting their medical correspondents practice participatory journalism.

“We always need to ask ourselves is a reporters involvement in the story appropriate and does it in any way impinge on accuracy, fairness and so on,” he says. “I just think in this case it is so innocent and the benefit is so obvious to the people who are in need of care that it’s not a difficult call to make.”

(CBS’ Dr. Jennifer) Ashton told CBS News executives that she wanted to go to Haiti first as a doctor. And the network has followed her as she has become a participant in medical efforts there.

“We’ve felt a little bit guilty about taking her away, for even short periods of time, from what she was doing that was really important compared with reporting,” adds Friedman.

Indeed, that’s one of the points I made in my CBC interview and one that another journalist made earlier on this blog, when he wrote:

“How do they justify leaving the scene to go do their live shot or writing or other tasks? Does the urgent need magically disappear when the show open rolls?

Just think how many more people these physicians could help if they took a leave of absence from their network jobs in order to provide care full-time… and left the reporting to journalists.”

If you haven’t had your fill, there wlll be more radio discussion on these issues this weekend on the NPR program, “On the Media,” whose hosts also interviewed me.

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