Gupta in Nepal: a physician-reporter pushing past the ethical limits

Nepal is a disaster zone. Katmundu hospital is overflowing. Sanjay Gupta is on the scene, showing and telling CNN audiences the scope of the tragedy with the expert eyes of a physician and the skills of a reporter but then, what’s this? Dr Gupta is asked to operate and there he is performing emergency  surgery on 8-year old Serena. He saves her. He performs an emergency resuscitation on an 18 year old mother while flying in an aid helicopter. He saves her. He is a hero. He is CNN’s hero.

What are we to make of this double role of surgeon and on-the-spot reporter in the same telegenic package? Clearly, no one argues that a physician trained to save lives should not do so. It is a doctor’s duty, after all. Likewise a conscientious reporter should serve the audience’s need to know and understand the larger world in the public interest without exploiting the people in a story. Can Sanjay do both without compromising either?

The senior medical correspondent has faced this quandary not once but several times in Afghanistan, in Haiti and last month, in Nepal.

Other journalists and medical commentators have weighed in on Sanjay’s simultaneous doctoring and reporting. Consequently red flags are flying on the ethical front. But Gutpa has been here before, and has said in the past about a similar incident: ‘Nowhere does it say that when you put on your press credentials they are a bar to your humanity.’

He is right, almost, but ethical journalism does say, as part of your press credentials, you should strive to avoid conflicts of interest, be accurate, independent, fair balanced, truth-seeking , respectful in general  and mindful of vulnerability in children and victims – do not exploit them for ‘gain or glory.’

Two strikes, then, against Sanjay the reporter in journalism ethics 101:  showing a person who is in a vulnerable position and possibly not aware their plight is going to be shown globally (can anyone be more vulnerable than a badly injured disaster victim?) and making himself the focus of the story.

Admittedly, newer online news sources like Vice, Gawker and now Buzzfeed use their reporters as characters in the stories, possibly a natural offshoot of the ‘first person’ narrative world of the blogosphere. But even some of my third year ethics students, digital natives all, question the journalism value in this method. Does it tell you something you wouldn’t be able to know otherwise, does it show respect for the people you feature, how much of the information is manipulated? Where is fair balance when the reporter dominates the story? Who benefits from this form of news reporting, the audience or news organization?

In an industry struggling with dwindling news ratings and a younger public that eschews TV watching for video delivered anytime on phone and tablet, versatility is an attention getter. Sanjay the doc reports on his medical work, Sanjay the Correspondent operates on earthquake victim:  two for the price of one.

Tom Linden, a once-practicing psychiatrist, has taught medical and health journalism for many years at the University of Chapel Hill in North Carolina. He laments that there has not been a code of ethics for reporter/physicians and offers three suggestions, developed with the Health Care Journalists Association (AHCJ). In short, do the doctor job first in emergencies and disasters; get permission to show a child from a parent or guardian; and most germane in Gutpa’s situation: “A physician reporter who treats a patient shouldn’t feature that patient (or ask that patient for permission to be featured) on a radio or television report.”

Praise Gupta for saving the life of the child in the Katmandu hospital and the young mother on the aid helicopter. Blame Gupta for featuring them front and centre in his coverage.

The audience comments on Gupta in Nepal are mainly positive, verging on worshipful, which paints those of us who point out an ethical dilemna for this dual role as mean spirited commentators who simply aren’t able to perform at the same level as the legendary Dr. Gupta. A life saver is not to be treated lightly, but is there not a better way to treat this quandary? Could CNN spring for another journalist to cover the disaster and let Sanjay be the neurosurgeon in this exceptional circumstance?

Situations change. Even so, ethics are not particularly elastic, stretch the boundaries and run the risk of ignoring ethical considerations and sound principles in favour of ‘gain and glory’. Sanjay Gupta thinks he is doing a fine job, as does CNN which sees ratings spike during disaster coverage. With more natural disasters forecast as a result of global warming, no doubt more physician-reporters will be in the field.  Logically, other combined reporter/something’s may follow – all the more reason for physicians and journalists and yes, physician-journalists, to recognize questionable ethics and ethical questions and call them as we see them.

This may help doctors who want to play a more public role in the media. Physicians have a strict code of ethics. Though not enshrined in an oath, journalists do have principles. Here’s a go-to list of journalists’ associations with statements of principles: http://www.journalism.org/resources/ethics-codes, http://www.healthnewsreview.org/?s=physician-reporters

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Kathryn O’Hara


Kathryn O’Hara is the CTV Chair in Science Broadcast Journalism at Carlton University in Ottawa.

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