By Dinah Eng
For most journalists, reporting the news means telling stories with accuracy and objectivity, but when you’re in the middle of a natural disaster, keeping your distance from the unfolding event isn’t easy.
Media coverage of the January earthquake in Haiti shared tragic stories about the victims of the 7.0 temblor that resulted in thousands of deaths and countless injuries. As the tragedy unfolded, journalists on the ground found themselves, in many cases, becoming part of the story.
Physician-reporters, who were covering the news for various networks, often chose to do double-duty, covering the story and treating victims as well. When the medical care they gave ended up on camera, critics objected to the apparent conflict of interest.
“A journalist’s loyalty is to her audience, and the doctor’s loyalty is to her patient,” said Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at The Poynter Institute. “I take issue with news organizations that send their doctor-reporters to the middle of natural disasters like Haiti because it creates a set of competing loyalties.”
McBride said if news organizations want to tell the medical story of Haiti, they should interview a doctor on site who’s providing medical care, so that when the doctor says a procedure or treatment is private, the journalist has to turn off the camera.
“There’s just a loss of privacy for the patient,” McBride said. “They’re vulnerable in that situation, and may have a language barrier. They may think if they don’t get some care from this doctor with a camera, they won’t get any care at all.
“It’s sensational to send a doctor-reporter in. They’re doing it to get dramatic footage, and it’s an easy way to have total control over a compelling story.”
During the aftermath of the quake, CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta performed neurosurgery on a child, while NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman splinted broken bones, and ABC’s Dr. Richard Besser helped a woman deliver a baby. Their efforts were noted in press coverage, making them part of the story as well.
Stephen J. Fox, a lecturer and multimedia journalism coordinator at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, said some of the coverage in Haiti was done around the clock, all propelled by the competitive 24-hour nature of news on the Internet.
“The visuals of people trapped under the rubble, and the participation of reporters and editors, trying to help people, brings up ethical dilemmas,” Fox said. “You have the Web, television, cable, all melding together now. Most ethical guidelines cut across all delivery formats. The concept is just think before you act.”
Journalists covering natural disasters need to balance three sets of interests when confronting ethical dilemmas — looking at their personal values, their employer’s needs and what their audience would want them to do, said Mary Nesbitt, managing director of the Readership Institute at the Media Management Center and associate dean for curriculum and professional excellence at the Medill School, Northwestern University.
“It’s interesting how extra-complicated ethical issues are in the 21st digital century,” Nesbitt said. “People are able to interact with their media now, and the fact that we’re able to know almost instantly if what we’re doing is connecting with our audience changes things.
In my early training, you can’t march in the parade and cover it, too. But you have to take more stakeholders into consideration now, not the least of whom is your readers and audience.”
Some critics say the combination of coverage and seeking monetary donations for the relief effort should have been kept separate. CNN, for example, participated in the “Hope for Haiti” telethon, spearheaded by the Hollywood entertainment community, with Anderson Cooper reporting live during the event.
Nesbitt notes that when a journalist becomes part of the story, by soliciting relief aid or helping victims, there’s a business aspect to the act that cannot be ignored.
“It becomes a combination of humanitarian and commercial goals when the reporter is part of the story,” she said. “These stories help build the brand of these larger-than-life journalists, and it reflects well on CNN and their promise to be there when news happens.”
While American journalists have a tradition of detachment designed to ensure credibility, there are situations that challenge that tradition, said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Shapiro said he did not see any gross ethical errors in the Haiti coverage, and differs with those who criticized doctor-reporters for becoming part of the story when treating victims on air.
“The [CNN] Gupta controversy didn’t strike me as particularly important,” Shapiro said. “Sanjay Gupta is a TV personality who uses TV to educate the public about medical issues, and he’s always used himself as a character in his stories. He’s a public educator, not a reporter. It was grasping at straws to make a big deal out of his operating on camera.
“I know, from informal conversations, that after filing their stories, reporters went back and helped individuals. It’s ethical to put away your notebook and spend an hour helping at the feeding station, or interviewing someone and then putting them in your jeep to go get them some care.”
Shapiro said the biggest ethical issue in covering Haiti’s problems will arise once the crisis is past.
“The obligation of news organizations to follow the families and victims, and holding people accountable for the funds that were raised — that’s the ethical issue that matters,” Shapiro said. “I fear that in the world of shrinking foreign news budgets and 24/7 entertainment cycles, it’ll be easy for news organizations not to commit the resources to continue covering the story in Haiti.”