Should physicians be journalists?

Posted: January 29, 2010

As floodwaters ravaged an Illinois town a few years ago, a newspaper reporter covering the story heard somebody shouting from a porch, asking him to pull a dog out of the torrent. The journalist put his notepad in his pocket, waded into the current, grabbed the flailing dog, and delivered it to its grateful family.

The journalist, a former student in my media ethics course, later told me that colleagues who had seen him pull the dog from the flood had chided him for putting aside his journalistic ethics of independence and objectivity to participate in a story he was covering. He wondered if he had done the right thing in saving the dog's life.

"Of course," I said. Sometimes you have to take off the journalist hat and put on the human hat, because we are humans first and journalists second.

The same ethical dilemma was raised in more dramatic fashion in a recent Los Angeles Times story about three broadcast journalists - Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC News, Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN, and Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News - who had donned their physician hats to treat the injured and needy in Haiti while reporting on the devastating earthquake there.

Bob Steele, a respected journalism ethicist at the Poynter Institute, told the paper that while reporters certainly should help save lives or prevent harm, "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." He added that "news organizations at some point appear to be capitalizing for promotional reasons on the intervention by journalists."

Dr. Snyderman responded that while she recognized the potential conflict, "Morally, I have a responsibility to help people." She said she also had a journalistic duty "to tell stories. And in between is a very delicate balance that I wrestle with."

Most journalists enter the field to make a difference - to uncover corruption, reveal problems, and make the world a better place. Doctors have a similarly worthwhile motivation: to heal and ease suffering.

So how does doing a doctor's work detract from the mission of journalism? Media ethicists correctly argue that journalists' participation in war or crime-fighting - as "embedded" correspondents or on ride-alongs with police - taints their perceived independence from the armies or law enforcement agencies they are covering. But a different argument arises when journalists use their expertise in other fields to help them tell a more thorough and knowledgeable story.

Many journalists have degrees in fields such as law, economics, art, and architecture that enable them to offer more informed coverage in those areas. It would be difficult to argue that New York Times columnist Paul Krugman's other job, as a Princeton economics and international affairs professor, detracts from his ability to offer knowledgeable commentary on the federal budget - or that the late Los Angeles Times jazz critic Leonard Feather's views on a performance were compromised because he was also a noted composer of jazz music.

Can't doctors who perform surgery at the scene of a disaster report knowledgeably about human pain and suffering and the challenges of treating the victims? Of course. CBS News Executive Vice President Paul Friedman hit the mark when he told the Times that, in the case of Haiti, "I can't conceive of a conflict we couldn't figure out and remedy."

This is not situational ethics so much as it's simply coming down, in this particular potential conflict of interest, in favor of our membership in the human race.

Steve Hallock teaches media ethics at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and is the author of "Reporters Who Made History: Great American Journalists on the Issues and Crises of the Late 20th Century." He can be reached at shallock@pointpark.edu.

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