TV Docs: To Aid or to Air First?

June 22, 2010
Keith L. Martin

A new article by a University of North Carolina journalism professor presents a very interesting portrayal of physicians dispatched by television networks to the sites of major disasters: Is their first priority to treat patients to medical care or treat viewers to an inside look?

A new article by a University of North Carolina journalism professor presents a very interesting portrayal of physicians dispatched by television networks to the sites of major disasters: Is their first priority to treat patients to medical care or treat viewers to an inside look?

The article, authored by former physician reporter and UNC professor of medical journalism Tom Linden, focuses on what some viewed as questionable behavior by major networks sending doctors to report on the Haitian earthquake in January. The article appears in the latest edition of Electronic News.

[SAGE Publications, who prints Electronic News, is making the full article available for free for a limited time here.]

Linden’s focus is on four physician reporters: Drs. Sanjay Gupta (CNN), Richard Besser (ABC), Nancy Snyderman (NBC) and Jennifer Ashton (CBS) and their work for the networks in the aftermath of the disaster. Linden notes that all four spent some or most of their time attending to injured or dying Haitians, not limiting their visit to on-camera activities only.

But it is that on-camera time, heavily promoted by the respective networks, that Linden says generated criticism of the docs reporting on their own medical efforts in the country, to which Ashton responded that “No good deed goes unpunished.”

After breaking down segments by all four docs – including Gupta’s diagnosis of an injured infant and Snyderman’s piece on amputations to remove crushed and infected limbs – Linden inquires on issues ranging from patient consent to whether or not the four needed to report on themselves while fulfilling their duties under the Hippocratic Oath.

He even takes the interesting step of proposing guidelines for future deployments of medical doctors serving as reporters. Among his three recommendations are that when physician journalists face medical emergencies, their duty to treat might take precedence over their reporting responsibilities and a physician reporter treating a patient should not feature that patient – or seek proper permission – on a radio or television report.

So the question remains, according to Linden: Which is greater, the public’s right to know or a patient’s physician’s duty to treat and protect their patients from exploitation? What do you think?