Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why is this a question?

As news coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti continues, several of the national news organizations have sent their "medical correspondents" (like Nancy Snyderman, talking head for NBC, and Richard Besser for ABC) to report from the scene.

Upon encountering so many in need of medical care, some have put reporting duties aside to set bones, treat lacerations, deliver babies. This has caused some wringing of hands in the Fourth Estate about the ethics of reporters, medically trained or not, becoming part of the story.

The complaints center around three themes

1) Journalists are there to find facts, gather points of view and show/tell us what's happening. When they participate in what's happening, they change the events they're covering.

2) Becoming involved with subjects of the story compromises the reporter's ability to report objectively.

3) TV doctor/reporters will choose the most telegenic patients to help, diverting resources from those who may have greater need.

Here's what I think about that:

1) The mere presence of cameras changes what's happening, a fact that every public protestor and kid waving "Hi Mom!" from the crowd in front of the camera, knows full well. In a public emergency, why not just go with it and use what's happening anyway for good?

2) Objectivity in news reporting died when Walter Cronkite retired and Barbie/Ken-esque news personalities stepped in. I wish it weren't so, and if Nancy Snyderman not treating patients would bring back an expectation of objectivity, I'd be all for it. But it won't. Might as well make some sort of purse out of this ugly sow's ear. Especially if the purse might save a life.

3) This may well be true, and I agree that's neither fair nor desirable. But here are the choices. Tele-Doc on assignment stands in front of hundreds of sick people and blabbers for the camera about the horrible scene. Or she puts the microphone down and splints a beautiful wide-eyed child's broken leg. To my mind, that's one less patient for overtaxed medical personnel without a tv gig to attend to, and one more human getting help.

News organizations have way bigger ethical issues to consider. Focus on those, and in the meantime, if somebody on the news payroll has expertise to meet a need more urgent than tonight's soundbite from the scene, get on with it.

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