News Execs Defend Medical Reporters in Haiti


The suffering of earthquake victims in Haiti has obviously affected the anchors and correspondents covering the story. Many have become emotional on the air and others have written impassioned blog posts.

But it is the medical correspondents who have come in for pointed criticism from journalism ethicists who suggest that they may be crossing the objectivity line by ministering to the wounded on camera.

ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser, a former director at the Center for Disease Control, assisted in the delivery of a premature baby. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman worked for hours in a make-shift clinic. CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta bandaged a head wound on a 15-day-old baby. And CBS’s Dr. Jennifer Ashton scrubbed in on a surgery of a teenager in shock after a botched amputation.

“I think it’s very hard for an individual who is professionally and emotionally engaged in saving lives to be able to simultaneously step back from the medical work and practice independent journalistic truth-telling,” Bob Steele, journalism values scholar at the Poynter Institute and journalism professor at DePauw University, told The Los Angeles Times’ Matea Gold.

But network news executives took umbrage at the suggestion that their medical correspondents in Haiti are crossing an ethical line.

Steve Capus, president of NBC News, expressed outrage that ethicists would question the judgment of medical reporters who have a unique capacity to help in the face of so much human suffering.

“I’d love for Bob Steele to have to pick up the phone and [lecture] Nancy Snyderman on the journalistic ethics of driving past a kid who can’t walk anymore because he has a crushed leg,” says Capus.

“Where would you draw the line? How does one remain absolutely 100 percent objective and say, I’m not going to go near that child who can’t walk any further? You don’t need to be objective about human suffering. If someone is trained as a medical doctor and they help, good for them. That’s the right thing to do.”

Paul Friedman, executive VP at CBS News, says news executives asked themselves all the right questions before letting their medical correspondents practice participatory journalism.

“We always need to ask ourselves is a reporters involvement in the story appropriate and does it in any way impinge on accuracy, fairness and so on,” he says. “I just think in this case it is so innocent and the benefit is so obvious to the people who are in need of care that it’s not a difficult call to make.”

Ashton told CBS News executives that she wanted to go to Haiti first as a doctor. And the network has followed her as she has become a participant in medical efforts there.

“We’ve felt a little bit guilty about taking her away, for even short periods of time, from what she was doing that was really important compared with reporting,” adds Friedman.

Kate O’Brian, senior VP of news at ABC News, also defended the network’s involvement in joining Haitian orphan Maya Esther with her adoptive parents in the United States.

“There are situations that become iconic,” said O’Brian. “This situation with baby Esther is an example of what’s going on all over that country.”