Friday, October 1, 2010

When to Observe and When to Help: Ethical Dilemmas in CNN's Disaster Reporting

By Heather Turner

              On a Wednesday afternoon less than one day after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck near the capital of Haiti, CNN led the international coverage of the disaster and delivered some of the first images of the devastation to homes worldwide (Rainey 2010). Among CNN's nine correspondents and 40 crew members in Haiti was the network's Chief Medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a practicing neurosurgeon (Rainey 2010). Within days of the earthquake, the coverage that dominated both CNN's cable and internet content was the story of Gupta treating a laceration on the head of a 15 day-old baby. While the four minute Gupta-baby-treating clip brought instant recognition to both the doctor and the network, experts in media ethics pointed out that several ethical breaches were made, especially the obvious: the journalist had become part of the story and therefore, did not operate as an objective observer. The Gupta event in particular created plenty of fodder within the blogosphere and renewed the debate amongst journalism practitioners and media ethicists about the dilemma journalists face when reporting from disaster zones: when does a reporter observe and when does a reporter help?

              The first ethical standards in journalism took shape in the profession in the early twentieth century as "critics became concerned with the press's watchdog function and what the public had a right to know" (Ferre, 16, 2009). Scholars and academics set about creating ethical guidelines for journalists during this period, culminating in the creation of the Hutchins Commission during World War II (Ferre, 22, 2009). The group, which included Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago and Arthur Schlesinger, studied the effects and responsibilities of the nation's free press (Ferre 2009). Their recommendations for journalistic conduct, which included responsibilities such as "providing daily news that is trustworthy" as well as "inclusive reporting, free of stereotypes" (Ferre, 22, 2009), was adopted by journalism schools and elaborated upon by news organizations and academics. Perhaps one of the most well known is the code of ethics defined by the Society of Professional Journalists.  According to SPJ, today the organization's "Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior" ( The SPJ Code of Ethics includes a preamble and specific guidelines for journalists to follow under the general themes to minimize harm, act independently, and that there is journalistic accountability (

             Less than two days after the CNN began broadcasting footage of Dr. Gupta treating disaster victims, SPJ reminded journalists of their role in disaster reporting in a news release. The release, entitled "SPJ cautions journalists: Report the story, don't become part of it" urged news organizations to "avoid blurring the lines between being a participant and being and objective observer" (, 2010). By crossing the line between participant and observer, Gupta had violated several other SPJ ethical guidelines.

              One of these ethical breeches occurred in the hours and days after the Gupta event unfolded live before a global audience: the misrepresentation of the disaster due to playing and replaying the clip. The Gupta story was also a lead item on CNN's web site. According to the SPJ Code of Ethics, news organizations should "make certain that headlines, news teasers and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context" ( A consequence of Gupta becoming the focus of the disaster in Haiti was the under-representation of the roles of other doctors and aid workers. Bob Steele, of The Poynter Institute and journalism professor at DePauw University described this process,"It gives the impression that these are the key people in what's going on ... It's an anecdotal capturing of reality, but there are thousands of medical personnel doing amazing things in Haiti" (Rogers, 2010). The subsequent Gupta coverage skewed the reality of what was happening on the ground in Haiti, as the roles of the very people who should have been the journalist's focus were downplayed in favor of hyping the role of the network’s new rock star.

              Moreover, material from the Gupta clip was used for promotional purposes by CNN, which further muddies the hypothetical journalistic waters. This was widely noticed and criticized by scores of other news organizations, including the LA Times, NPR, The Salt Lake Tribune and The Washington Post (Brainard 2010 CJR). In a report published in the LA Times blogs, Steele (2010), summarized: "Frankly, it isn't much of a story ... You can't help but look at this and worry there is a marketing element to it." Stephen J.A. Ward, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin also worried that the coverage was manipulative, "Is this compassion or is it congratulations? ... It's almost as if the networks are saying, 'Look at our correspondent down there.' It gives me an uncomfortable, queasy feeling" (Farhi 2010). In addition to CNN recycling the four minute video of Gupta treating the injured baby, the network also named the crisis "Saving Haiti," and took a major role in organizing fundraising efforts for relief aid, with the help of CNN's popular anchor/commentator Anderson Cooper and high profile celebrities (Lambino 2010).

              Perhaps a more disturbing consequence of Gupta's disaster coverage was that for the first time, all of the major domestic networks also sent doctor-journalists to Haiti, following CNN's example (Farhi, 2010). The Washington Post dubbed "Gupta effect," reverberated throughout the television sphere and provided networks with plenty of material to use to hype their own brands of participatory journalism. Among the doctors in the field were Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Chief Medical Editor of NBC News, Dr. Jennifer Ashton of CBS News, and Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News. Given the potential ratings gold doctor-reporters can generate, it is not entirely cynical to think that this is a factor networks take into account when deciding which correspondents to deploy in such situations. Indeed, it is not difficult to envision a media environment described by Dr. Bob Arnot, former Chief Medical Correspondent for NBC News: "The real risk is here that your producer calls up and says, hey we just saw the other network’s doctor deliver a baby, could you do an amputation. There’s a real risk that doctors could be pushed into things they shouldn't be doing because of the pressure of the suits or the producers, to just get better ratings" (NPR 2010, On the Media).
             Another violation of the SPJ Code of Ethics doctor-journalists and networks must consider is the treatment of the disaster victims who unwittingly become patients in a live broadcast environment. It is a primary objective for journalists, according to SPJ, to minimize harm and treat "sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect" ( Media critics argue that Gupta's footage and the way it was used by CNN are exploitative of the individuals the doctor treated. On a recent appearance on National Public Radio's "Tell Me More," Dr. Kelly McBride of the Pointer Institute highlighted this issue: "If they're treating patients, they have an obligation to treat that patient with dignity. And I think its somewhat exploitative because clearly those patients have no capability of consenting to being part of - to having their medical situation becoming part of a story" (NPR 2010).  Besides the consideration for human dignity in the SPJ Ethics Code, the subject is one of the few universally accepted ethical norms of journalism that CNN came into direct conflict with when sending Dr. Gupta to Haiti and proliferating the resulting footage (Christian and Cooper 2009).

            CNN was quick to respond to the backlash it had created, not by addressing the specific ethical issues brought up by critics, but by more or less simply explaining via spokesperson that Dr. Gupta is a "doctor first." This was essentially the position the doctor in question took, communicating this via Twitter and during a follow up appearance on CNN's Larry King Live. Gupta explained,"Many have asked: of course, if needed, I will help people with my neurosurgical skills. yes, I am a reporter, but a doctor first" ( SanjayGuptaCNN, 2010). There was a similar response across-the-board from fellow doctor-journos operating in Haiti at the time, who likewise said that their role as physicians came before being a journalist in the field (Farhi 2010, NPR 2010). However, at least one news executive, Steve Capus of NBC News, expressed discontent in a response to the critics’ charges and also framed the dilemma that reporters face in disaster zones, "I'd like to see Bob Steele (Poynter Institute Scholar) to have to pick up the phone and [lecture] Nancy Snyderman on the journalistic ethics of driving past a kid who can't walk anymore because he has a crushed leg ... Where would you draw the line?" (Guthrie, 2010).
               It was not as though media critics did not acknowledge the difficulty reporters face in disaster scenarios. Yet, when it comes to answering the question of when it is appropriate for a doctor-reporter to jump in and help victims, an overwhelming number of critics say that the simplest way to avoid ethical violations is to turn the camera off. This is precisely what Dr. Bob Arnot did when he assisted injured persons while reporting for NBC News in Rwanda, Iraq and Indonesia (NPR 2010, On the Media). In this way, Arnot was able to deliver care to those who needed it without promoting himself or NBC. For Arnot, the reasons boil down to ethical considerations of human dignity and the misuse of self-generated rescue footage, "If this happened on the streets of New York, do you think you could do that with the current HIPAA regulations? So, sure, you’re potentially exploiting the patient, and you are becoming more of a showman than you are a medical doctor out there" (NPR 2010, On the Media).

An even easier way to avoid these ethical conflicts is to avoid sending doctor-journalists into disaster zones as correspondents. Rather, doctors should go into disaster zones to make a difference by offering humanitarian aid and their medical expertise if being a "doctor first" will always take precedent before being a journalist in the field.  It goes without saying that watching a doctor-journo in action is both dramatic and heartwarming. Moreover, sending medically trained correspondents into the field in Haiti may have been the winning formula for higher ratings across networks, as NBC, ABC, and CBS all saw spikes in ratings during the first week of Haiti coverage (Guthrie, 2010). All of this comes at the cost, of course, of long practiced journalistic standards.


Ferre, John P. 2009. A Short History of Media Ethics in the United States. "The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics." Ed: Wilkins, Lee and Christians, Clifford G. 1st edition. Routledge: NY.

Christian, Clifford G. and Cooper, Thomas W. 2009. The Search for Universals. "The Handbook of Mass Media Ethics." Ed: Wilkins, Lee and Christians, Clifford G. 1st edition. Routledge: NY.

Kennicott, Philip. 2009. Media Offers Full, Blunt, Hideous Picture of Trauma Caused by Haiti Earthquake. Jan. 16. The Washington Post <>.

Brainard, Curtis. 2010. Reporters Doubling as Docs in Haiti. Jan. 20. "Columbia Journalism Review." <>.

Farhi, Paul.2010. In Haiti, Reporters Who Double as Doctors Face a New Balancing Act. Jan. 19. "The Washington Post." <>.

Rogers, Tony. 2010. When Should Journalists Help Those in Need At Disaster Scenes. retreived: Feb. 2010.About. com. <>.
Lambino, Antonio. 2010. Keeping Haiti on My Mind. Feb. 12. "The World Bank." <>.

2010. Tell Me More. National Public Radio. Jan 21. <>.

2010. On The Media. National Public Radio. Jan. 22. <>.

Gupta, Sanjay. 2010. SanjayGuptaCNN.Twitter. Jan. 13. <>

Guthrie, Marisa. 2010. Covering Haiti at a Cost. "Broadcasting & Cable." Jan. 25. <>.

No comments:

Post a Comment

No to the Status Quo! News and Opinion Blogs

Blogger Widgets