Charges that CNN made false claims about Dr. Sanjay Gupta in Nepal

The Global Press Institute reports, “CNN Falsely Claims Dr. Sanjay Gupta Performed Brain Surgery on 8-Year-Old Quake Victim in Nepal.”  The heart of the issue is explained here:

While covering the medical response to April’s devastating earthquake in Nepal, TV neurosurgeon-journalist Sanjay Gupta and his colleagues wrongly reported that he helped perform a craniotomy that saved an 8-year-old quake victim from permanent brain damage or death. In fact, the girl identified in the widely disseminated report never underwent surgery. …

In multiple videos, headlines and a text story, CNN repeated Gupta’s claim that he took part in a craniotomy that ensured Salina – a small, slender girl who arrived at the hospital with her grandfather – would avoid permanent brain damage or death.   In a video showing Salina that aired on CNN’s “New Day,” anchor Alisyn Camerota says, “Tell us about this little girl that we’re seeing on our screen whom you just performed brain surgery on.”   Gupta, a neurosurgeon, responds: “The little girl, named Salina, she is 8 years old,” and goes on to describe skull fractures and blood clots on her brain.   But the injuries he is describing are not Salina’s. The description is of Sandhya Chalise, 14.

But the issue gets even muddier as the story continues:

Dr. Rajiv Jha, a neurosurgeon at Bir Hospital who appears in CNN’s videos and who was in the operating room when Sandhya had her craniotomy, repeatedly told Global Press Journal (GPJ) that Gupta asked to help in a brain surgery. In CNN’s videos, Gupta states that doctors at Bir Hospital asked for his assistance.   “I met him in the morning. Since the morning, he wanted to help me during surgeries,” Jha says. “But as I said, that I have sufficient manpower to perform the neurosurgeries.”   In a widely circulated CNN video clip, Gupta is shown wearing surgical scrubs and leaning over a patient while holding a suction tool. Jha told GPJ that Gupta merely observed in the surgery, and briefly used a suction tool to examine Jha’s work.   But CNN provided GPJ with unused raw footage showing Gupta in the same operating room with Jha, using a hand-operated drill, a string saw and other tools. That video was never released publicly; CNN provided it to GPJ as proof that Gupta did more than observe.

Gupta Nepal

The Guardian:  “CNN investigates claims Sanjay Gupta misled viewers in Nepal report.”  It concluded:

Ethics experts have previously raised questions over the conflicting instincts of a physician-journalist.

Connie St Louis, director of the Science Journalism programme at City University in London, told the Guardian in April that she was “really, really worried” about the ethics of filming a journalist’s medical intervention.

“As a journalist with medical training, do you really need to film the times when you get involved? There’s certainly a possible confidentiality issue, as well as the potential for self-promotion. If you film the journalist doing the medical procedure, they become the story. My feeling is, why do it in Nepal when there is no way you could possibly do this in America?” she said.

NPR reported, “Factual Error Opens CNN Star Sanjay Gupta To Scrutiny Over Dual Roles.” In the story, NPR quotes from an interview with Gupta:

“I don’t like to make mistakes,” Gupta said. “Sometimes you are beholden to other people for information, or you are verifying details in other ways. It gives me pause as a doctor. It gives me pause as a journalist.”

The mistake, Gupta said, was one born of havoc. “We want to be accurate, 100 percent. It was a chaotic situation, no doubt. You had a hospital turn into a massive triage area.”

Not good enough, argued Cristi Hegranes, the founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Global Press Institute and the publisher of the Global Press Journal.

“When foreign correspondents are parachuted into a place where they have no social, historical, cultural or political context, the coverage is automatically compromised,” says Hegranes, herself a former stringer in Nepal. “Accuracy is not the top priority.”

And Gupta told me that he understands the conflict between the imperatives of being a reporter and a doctor. “I don’t know I’ve found the precise right way to handle these things,” he said. “I want to make sure I can report objectively after being engaged so directly like this.”

But, he added, “You gotta be a doctor first. And you gotta do this.”

As a reporter, he said it’s important to be completely accurate. “That’s our profession. … If you allow imprecision, it becomes very, very slippery.”

The Global Press Journal piece concludes with this:

“the hospital’s vice chancellor, says he questions Gupta’s professionalism.   “Either he becomes a neurosurgeon or he should be a journalist,” Gurung says. “It is a choice. Everybody has got a choice.”

And that is the issue we’ve written about many times as we’ve looked at ethical conflicts for physicians who act as physicians while also acting as journalists.  Some past links – and this is an incomplete list of what we’ve written on this topic:


Addendum: posted, “Is Sanjay Gupta a doctor or a reporter? Even he’s not sure.” It concluded: “Perhaps in the future, when Gupta’s services are required to tend to the gravely wounded, the cameras could be shut off and then just interview him about the experience after he’s done and washed up? It seems like a case where he should either be covering the story or part of the story, but not both.”

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Comments (5)

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Steven Miles, MD

July 9, 2015 at 12:14 pm

Dr. Gupta hopelessly and intentionally confuses his identity as a journalist, as a celebrity-egoist, as a doctor, He has lied (e.g., being a medical examiner), showboated (e.g., tried to get to an Ebola patient in the use), commandeered relief facilities in Haiti and (now it appears in Nepal as well). One does not know what to make about his claim to have done CPR on a helicopter. A sad case of a professional who looks good and has been boosted by the shills at CNN. Steven Miles, MD, Professor of Medicine and Ethics, University of Minnesota

Caleb Hellerman

July 9, 2015 at 4:42 pm

disclosure up front: I spent several years as a producer with Dr. Gupta, before leaving CNN this past November.
This story is a pretty good roundup on the Nepal situation; a lot of other coverage (including the original Global Press story) feels misleading. Why? Because whether or not a doctor/journalist can properly balance those roles has little or nothing to do with the error in CNN’s reporting. Gupta misidentified a person in the story, which is a pretty big mistake but doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not he performed the operation. A non-doctor reporter, on- or off-camera, could have made the same mistake. Your quote from Hegranes is a similar non sequitur.: this is about basic fact-checking, not cultural context that gets lost when reporters parachute in. While I’m defending CNN, Dr. Miles is wrong on at least some facts (I don’t know what it means to get a patient “in the use,” and re: Haiti I assume he refers to an incident where Gupta’s team came across a medical facility where all staff had departed, leaving patients alone for the night – not exactly “commandeering.”) If he were a random commenter you might ignore it but he’s ID’ing himself as a professional ethicist. All that aside… there are real issues with dual role doctor/journalists, and the broader trend of journalists sharing their own personal experiences. It’s a fine line between finding news and reshaping it around yourself. One might say that a star journalist does more to help disaster victims by bringing attention to the story, than he or she would help as a nameless volunteer. At the same time, by inevitably emphasizing certain angles and anecdotes, it might distort the audience’s view of what’s “important.” Or maybe it reflects a natural human instinct? I don’t know… Regardless, these questions are mostly about journalism, a bit about subjective aesthetics and not much about patient care. (despite the iffy quotes in the original story). Anyway, kudos to the Global Press Institute for making a good catch to correct the record, and for its bigger mission of broadening the range of voices who are heard. It’s unfortunate their own story included errors and IMO a misleading headline.

    Gary Schwitzer

    July 9, 2015 at 5:20 pm


    Thanks for your note.

    And your disclosure reminded me to add that I, too, once worked in the CNN medical news unit, from 1984-90. My time there did not overlap with Dr. Gupta, whom I’ve never met.

    Steven Miles, MD

    July 10, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Here is Dr. Gupta working at “night:”

    Imran Ali MD

    July 10, 2015 at 8:14 pm

    Many interesting ideas been brought up and as the media and medicine become a key part of our society there is a lot of issues that that need to be discussed, but when it comes to reporting and becoming the story, it is a fine line. Here is an article I write exactly about this: