TV Medical Correspondents Juggle Dueling Obligations in Haiti
For medical correspondents in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, being a doctor comes before being a journalist, NBC's Dr. Nancy Snyderman said, answering criticism over the ethical dilemma of reporters becoming part of the story.
"I guess the best thing I could ask of the critics is come here and walk in my shoes for a day and tell me if you would walk by somebody who has a bone sticking out of his arm," Snyderman told Howard Kurtz on CNN's Reliable Sources. "If you would walk by it, then I guess we're just different people."
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Snyderman, a head and neck cancer surgeon, is one of a handful of doctor-reporters trying to delicately balance two roles in Haiti: physician and journalist. In the past week, CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta treated an infant girl with a severe head wound, CBS' Dr. Jennifer Ashton assisted in the amputation of a girl's arm, ABC's Dr. Richard Besser helped a woman in labor, and Snyderman tended to patients in a triage set-up.
Their actions have drawn concern from media ethicists, who believe the correspondents are violating journalistic integrity and preventing news from being reported fairly.
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"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," Stephen J.A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, told The Washington Post.
Since networks are broadcasting the life-saving efforts, it can be seen as self-promotion, Ward said. "Is this compassion or is it congratulations?" he said. "It's almost as if the networks are saying, 'Look at our correspondent down there.' It gives me an uncomfortable, queasy feeling."
While Snyderman acknowledges there is the possibility of grandstanding, she says she hopes there isn't any. "If there is an element of that, it's appalling. It's not what I came here to do. But I worry," she said. "Is my job here to treat people and say look at me? I would say the answer is emphatically no. Is my job here to treat people and help people who happen to be in my line of sight? Yes, the answer is emphatically yes."
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Snyderman said she arrived in Haiti strictly for NBC News and not to be a "heroine in any sort." But she said she was compelled to provide medical assistance when locals asked if she was a doctor and subsequently told her they needed her. At that point, Snyderman said, "there was no question" about whether she should tend to patients. She performed what she described as "glorified first aid in the field" due to the lack of proper medical equipment.
Ultimately, the criticism doesn't bother Snyderman. "If I tell the stories through the eyes of a physician and I tell those stories to millions of people, do I help more people in the long run?" she says. "I guess at the end of the day I have to believe the answer is yes or I shouldn't be doing this. But there are gray areas every day ... and it's those gray areas that I think all of us who are here wrestle with."