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In Haiti, reporters who double as doctors face a new balancing act

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; C01

Some of the most visible American television correspondents in Haiti aren't just reporting the story. They're actively participating in it in an unusual way -- performing surgeries, providing medical treatment and even delivering babies on camera.

For the first time, all of the major domestic TV news networks have deployed doctor-reporters to the scene of a natural disaster, producing a dramatic kind of participatory journalism. Jennifer Ashton, CBS News's medical correspondent and a doctor, assisted with the treatment of a teenage girl whose arm had been amputated. NBC's Nancy Snyderman, a surgeon, has spent days splinting broken bones, while ABC's Richard Besser, a doctor formerly affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helped a woman deliver a premature baby.

The twin roles -- doctor and journalist -- might be a reflection of the Gupta Effect, after CNN's dashing medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta. A practicing neurosurgeon who last year withdrew from consideration to be President Obama's surgeon general, Gupta has risen to stardom as a hands-on doctor-TV correspondent, performing on-camera surgeries in such places as Iraq.

Gupta has been active in Haiti, too, popping up on camera to treat a 15-day-old baby with a head laceration, and later operating on a 12-year-old girl who had been taken aboard an American aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, by helicopter. He also has been tweeting regularly about his medical and TV activities. At one point on Saturday he wrote, "Pulling all nighter at haiti field hospital. lots of work, but all patients stable. turned my crew into a crack med team tonight."

Though news outlets have long hired reporters with special expertise, including doctors and former athletes, it's unusual for a journalist to become part of the story. Reporters shy away from direct involvement to avoid affecting the outcome of the news and to maintain the distance necessary to report accurately and fairly.

"I understand that [offering medical assistance] makes for dramatic scenes, and it does bring a human face to the whole story, but this has to be treated very carefully," said Stephen J.A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin's journalism school. Ward says such "emotion-based" reporting has its place, but it can become manipulative and obscure the larger picture.

Worse, it can become self-promotional: "Is this compassion or is it congratulations?" he asks. "It's almost as if the networks are saying, 'Look at our correspondent down there.' It gives me an uncomfortable, queasy feeling."

Network executives and correspondents counter that such firsthand accounts offer close-up perspectives of the medical challenges facing Haiti's people, and that they bring the crisis home to viewers in a way that straightforward reporting does not.

"It's a legitimate question to ask whether you're jeopardizing fair and honest coverage by letting someone involved in the story report it," says Paul Friedman, executive vice president of CBS News. "But we feel it's something we can do without prostituting ourselves or misleading the audience."

Friedman says that competitive issues have factored in boosting Ashton's role since Gupta became a star ("We're guilty of the appalling sin of competing," he says), but that her work speaks for itself: "I have not seen anything in her reporting that says her participation has hurt her work. She hasn't pulled any punches."

Ashton and Snyderman said on Tuesday in interviews from Haiti that their obligations as physicians trumped their roles as journalists, given the dire nature of conditions in Haiti.

"What I did not foresee when I came down here is the number of people with open wounds and broken bones who need our help," said Snyderman, sounding weary after another long day. "Five days after the quake, a nun at a charity said to me, 'We need you.' In that instance, it's not a hard decision to make. I went to work. . . . I came to the decision that I am first and foremost a physician."

Said Ashton: "I came down here because I really wanted to take care of these people. The CBS cameras have followed me, and I just answer questions. But I made a decision at the beginning of this disaster that my primary role is as a doctor. I don't have any conflict about two roles because I'm in doctor mode here."

Besser, who has been with ABC just four months, saw it the other way around. "My primary role is to report on the public-health consequences of this earthquake," he said.

Though he has not hesitated to provide assistance to people in immediate need ("Part of the Hippocratic oath is to help when you can," he says), Besser observed: "I think you'll only see me [giving care] on camera when it illustrates a bigger story. I don't want the story to be about me. It's about the situation here."

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