This is a media ethics issue. So don’t read anything into this about medicine.
Physician-reporter Sanjay Gupta today reported on himself treating an injured baby in Haiti – in a video segment that got a lot of airtime and a lot of prime real estate on CNN’s website.
[Note: CNN’s video is no longer available so we have embedded a Youtube version of a video from CBS, where Gupta is also a contributor, which includes some of the same footage.]
“This wasn’t the first time Gupta has brought his medical skills to bear on assignment. In 2003, while embedded with the U.S. Navy’s “Devil Docs” medical unit in Iraq, he performed brain surgery five times.
His actions trouble some media ethicists, who said it’s problematic for Gupta to be toggling between the roles of reporter and a doctor.
“There definitely are cases where a journalist who is qualified can and should provide medical assistance when the need is immediate and profound,” said Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at The Poynter Institute and journalism professor at DePauw University. “The problem in Dr. Gupta’s case is that he has done this on a number of occasions in Iraq and now in Haiti. If it’s imperative that he intervene and help medically, then take him out of his journalistic role and do that. But don’t have him covering the same stories in which he’s a participant. It muddles the journalistic reporting. It clouds the lens in terms of the independent observation and reporting.”
Steele also questioned the prominence CNN gave the piece, which got significant play on the network and online. “Frankly, it isn’t much of a story,” Steele said. “You can’t help but look at this and worry there is a marketing element in it.”
Bob Steele has thought longer and harder about news media ethics issues than anyone I know. I agree with him 100% on this issue. And it raises a question for ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox or any other network or any local TV station that loves to put doctors on the air as reporters. Who gives them a primer in media ethics?
(Addendum: On January 15, LA Times media columnist James Rainey wrote: “No matter how much CNN succeeded in delivering the story, it will never make me stomach the self-promotion that it and other outlets insist on weaving throughout their coverage. Can we please get through an hour without heaping praise on our correspondents’ valor (however real it may be)? Maybe Gupta can’t be stopped from playing both reporter and doctor (he is a neurosurgeon, after all), but how many times are we going to have to watch that video of the good doctor bandaging the head of a 15-day-old girl?”)
(Second addendum – January 18: Now both CBS’ Dr. Jennifer Ashton and ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser have also reported on themselves delivering health care in Haiti.)