Ethics problem: physician-journalists interview colleagues without disclosing conflict

A physician wrote to me saying that the following story was “egregious because it is factually on another planet.”

The story in question was  PBS Newshour “special correspondent” Dr. Emily Senay interviewing Dr. Claudia Henschke of Mount Sinai Hospital about lung cancer screening.

Henschke (left) & Senay (right)

In the interview, CT scan advocate Henschke played fast and loose with the numbers about lives that would be saved by more scanning.

The interviewer, physician-“journalist” Senay, tossed out softball questions, one after another. Nowhere in the interview was there any mention of the conflict of interest controversies that have swirled around Henschke.

A more important omission: nowhere in the piece is it disclosed that Drs. Senay and Henschke are colleagues on the Mount Sinai Hospital faculty. See Senay’s affiliation online here.

When Senay lobs easy questions at her colleague-interviewee so the latter can hit them out of the park, it is all for the greater honor and glory of the institution that pays both of them.  That is a pretty clear conflict of interest.

And Senay/PBS are not alone in this practice.


On September 18, Dr. Jon LaPook of CBS News interviewed Dr. Mark Pochapin, director of the division of gastroenterology at NYU Langone Medical Center for his story, “Colonoscopies save lives, but they’re not perfect.”  LaPook works in the same division of the same hospital. That overt conflict was not disclosed.  I’ve seen LaPook do this before with other interviews, but I just filed a mental note and didn’t write about it. But now, after seeing the Senay episode, I’m starting to feel that “once is an accident, twice is a trend.” It’s fundamentally unsound journalism, and I’m going to call it out whenever I see it.

This would be like….well, I can’t think of a suitable analogy.  Because only on health care stories do we allow so many of those in the industry – health care –  to cross over and spend part of their days playing journalist.

But who ever trains these physicians-playing-journalists in journalism ethics?

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics states:

Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

The Association of Health Care Journalists Statement of Principles states that journalists must:

  • Avoid any personal or financial interest in any company in any field related to what is being covered.
  • Remember that journalists face other potential conflicts of interest. Think about questions such as: Were you a patient at a particular hospital? Do you have a relative with a specific disease that could unduly influence your handling of a story? Does this insurance company cover employees in your newsroom? It is the journalist’s responsibility to recognize these conflicts and prevent them from influencing stories or story choices. The best way to do this is by constant, open and honest discussion with other reporters, editors or producers.

In my view – and I’ve thought and written a great deal about these issues in 40 years in health care journalism and as one who taught media ethics at the University of Minnesota for 9 years – the physician-journalist practices outlined above violate each of these tenets.  I hold the media organizations – PBS and CBS in these cases – as responsible as the physicians they’ve hired.  One could argue that the media organizations hold even more responsibility in these cases.

Here are a few past examples that we have written about:

Addendum on October 14:  The Cancer Letter reports in much more detail on this PBS story.  Excerpt:

“The Cancer Letter contacted PBS for comment on Henschke’s claims, and on Senay’s reporting.

“I thought we did an inadequate job on our web piece, that it was posted too quickly, and with not enough thought, in a way that presented an incomplete and therefore potentially inaccurate picture of the thinking about these kinds of screenings to the public,” said Marc Rosenwasser, executive producer of PBS Newshour Weekend, which is based at WNET in New York City. “I thought one of the failures of the web posting is it didn’t put in the proper context these various findings about the success of the [lung CT screening].”

The web piece was corrected on Oct. 10.

“Within 12 hours of this coming to our attention, we’re going to have a much more complete posting, which will include contrary findings that place the significance of these [screenings],” Rosenwasser said to The Cancer Letter. “According to what other people are saying, unlike that particular doctor, [averting deaths through lung CT screening] might be successful 20 percent of the time, instead of 75 to 80 percent of the time.”


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