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Newsman becomes newsmaker

Pundits and wags are vigorously debating whether or not it is appropriate to televise physician-reporter hybrids in Haiti who, like CNN’s Sanjay Gupta, have made themselves part of the story by treating injured people on air (Gupta iis shown in the CNN clip to the right).

Richard Besser former acting head of the US Centers for Disease Control, and subject of a recent Nature profile is one of several such hybrids now working for the US television network, ABC. He helped out in a difficult pregnancy, and the anecdote serves as a centrepiece to a story on the earthquake’s impact on pregnant women (view the segment here).

There is some conflict between these correspondents’ dual roles. Not intervening in a story is a central tenet in journalism, but as doctors, these individuals are compelled to attend the sick and injured when they can help.

Gary Schwitzer, a health journalist and publisher of (a website that rates health journalism) encapsulates several sides of the argument here.

The Los Angeles Times picked up on the story here, with some quotes from Besser. “When I see a situation where there’s something I could do to help somebody, I’m going to do that,” Besser said.

Many are arguing that once intervention begins (and by all rights, in these cases it must) the reporting stops, or else the story risks becoming a tool of self promotion. Others are speculating whether the earthquake in Haiti represents a special case, or whether journalism must by necessity embrace its ability to intervene.

Rahul K. Parikh, a doctor-reporter himself, lauds the coverage of Gupta working to keep a field clinic open while the camera rolled as improving the image of both doctors and journalists at

Even at NASAwatch Keith Cowing baits a NASA public affairs administrator who Cowing says takes a hard line on non-interventionist journalism.

I emailed Besser who responded that these are tough issues probably worthy of future panel discussions. For him, the decision was not about parsing roles, but both to the right end “These are the types of problems in Haiti. Can you understand it better by seein ghte experience of this patient?” He’ll continue to help patients but says that it should only be on the air if it illustrates a larger story.


  1. Report this comment

    Liz said:

    from my point of view I can assure you that the enormous leap in CREDIBILITY of these reporters is directly related to their intervention….I never paid much attention to any so called medical expert/media “Doctor” & was assuming it was mainly hyperbole & pseudo science….finding out that they are acredited physicians with real skills & compelling ethics is a wonderful revelation!

    additionally….if they must CHOOSE between helping & reporting then reporting should stop not the giving of aid

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    Dr. R. Onin said:

    Every little bit helps I guess but in the video Sanjay Gupta looks like a med student examining his first neonate. He doesn’t seem able or comfortable when trying to opening the baby’s eyes — almost like he’s afraid. He does a very cursory neurological exam and what he does he does out of order. And he doesn’t even check the baby’s vital signs. This is all basic stuff that a 3rd year med student could do better.

    Additionally, he says the baby has “a laceration under the skull.” What?!? That is not even anatomically possible. How is Gupta not familiar with even basic medical terminology and anatomy? Also, when Gupta decides there’s no fracture, he declares the child fine forgetting that trauma to the soft skull of an infant can be accompanied by dangerous bleeding under the skull even without a fracture. Finally, he looks like he’s never applied a head dressing before — something a full-time neurosurgical doctor or nurse could do with his or her eyes closed.

    Despite his claim of “being a doctor first,” it appears he’s really a reporter first and a doctor as a hobby. This is not surprising as either job alone demands more than a full time commitment to do well. Trying to do both results in the severe compromise of at least one of the skills as is clearly shown here. And the fact that he allowed this embarrassing video to be posted shows he doesn’t even realize how lacking his medical skills are. Scary! He should focus on reporting and do only basic first aid under the guidance of real, full-time doctors and nurses.

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    Morrie Goodman said:

    For a journalist not to help someone in trouble, whether medical in nature or any other situation in which the journalist could help, would be criminal. Can you see a reporter standing next to a person hanging by one hand on the edge of a cliff and reporting on the emergency and then walking away? Of course not. Should Sanjay Gupta walk away from a bleeding victim just because he is a reporter? of course not. But should he stop when admnistering medical help when the camera stops or should he stay there and continue helping victims and forget his role as a journalist. With a shortage of medical personnel, he should have said goodbye to his cameraman and kept helping and then told CNN that he would have to become a doctor again and leave the journalist behind. Maybe he did. I wasn’t there.

    No journalist should become part of the story to further the story or the journalistic enterprise. Rather the journalist should suspend his/her journalistic duties to help. We all have the responsibility to help in an emergency just as a grocer would or an accountant. Just don’t do it for shameless self promotion.

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