Who teaches journalism ethics to physician-reporters?

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.]

The Los Angeles Times reports:

“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.)

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January 14, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Sanjay Gupta may be an accomplished doc and a reporter. I just wish he would turn off the camera when he is seeing patients. Makes the whole thing look cheap, disingenuous and made for ratings.


January 14, 2010 at 8:12 pm

I can’t figure out why Gupta was sent by CNN to cover the disaster in Haiti. The medical aspects of this sort of disaster are not the main event. The segment discussed above seems skanky…

Elaine Schattner, M.D.

January 26, 2010 at 10:14 am

What about the flip question – who teaches medical ethics (and law) to journalists who report on medicine?
When I was a student in journalism school last year, I was surprised by my colleagues’ willingness, even eagerness, to delve right into personal stories about people with illness. Most physicians are experienced, and lately trained, in issues about patients’ confidentiality, HIPPA, etc. Most journalists aren’t.
Of course not all doctors are terrific in their manner of speaking to patients who are ill, sometimes frightened and essentially vulnerable. But maybe journalists need training in this matter, too.

Gary Schwitzer

January 26, 2010 at 4:44 pm

The flip side IS equally important, as you point out.
When I’ve taught health/medical journalism to graduate students OR undergrads, they’ve received a heavy dose of medical ethics discussions. Of course we’re blessed on the U. of Minnesota campus with the terrific UMN Center for Bioethics and folks like Jeff Kahn, Steve Miles and Carl Elliott – to name only a few.
Thanks for your note and for your interest.