As they cover the devastation and relief efforts in Haiti, American television reporters who are also trained medical professionals are often stopping to give medical care. In the process, they are creating stories with themselves as central players.
Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News helped a very young woman get to a hospital for a complicated birth. Dr. Nancy Snyderman of NBC gave a man treatment for infection in hopes he would survive long enough for a lifesaving amputation. Dr. Sanjay Gupta of CNN gave care to an injured baby and tended to other desperate patients at a hospital one night while other doctors slunk out.
While many viewers may cheer, that's giving pause to some media and medical ethicists, who say it can distort both the journalism absorbed in the U.S. and the care delivered in Haiti.
"What disturbs me about the media doctors is that they are basically pulling telegenic people out of the queue and giving them exceptional resources," says Dr. Steven Miles, a medical professor and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota.
Miles served as the medical director of the American Refugee Committee for 25 years, and he has overseen relief efforts in places such as Cambodia, Laos and Banda Aceh, Indonesia. He says doctors who largely have experience working in highly advanced civil societies, including the U.S., may not understand the extreme choices facing those addressing catastrophes such as the one in Haiti.
NBC's Snyderman, a head and neck surgeon on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says there's always a danger for TV news reporters of seeming to grandstand. But she says she has been struck by the need for medical care since her arrival in Haiti a few days after the earthquake struck. And she says she doesn't feel as though she can serve merely as a journalistic observer.
"I didn't sleep at all the first night I was here wrestling with just that," Snyderman tells NPR by phone from Haiti. "I'm usually very careful in the United States that when I'm in the hospital, my journalism hat is not on ... and I'm very cognizant of the fact that here, the lines are terribly blurred."
She says that she has been asking herself these questions each day: "What is my job? Where do I make the biggest difference? Or should I try to do both? Do I plug as many holes as I can at the moment and then do I scramble back to tell the stories to 6 million people?"
"I think at the end of the day, I'm more comfortable with knowing I'm trying to do both as well as I can," Snyderman says. She says she is so affected by what she has witnessed that she intends to volunteer three weeks a year for medical relief teams in disaster zones.
Besser is relatively new to his job as a reporter and senior medical editor at ABC News; he was most recently the acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and says he was drawn to journalism as an extension of his work communicating important facts about public health.
He said he encountered the young pregnant woman only after setting out to do a broader policy story about prenatal care amid the debris and carnage in Haiti.
"I think it's a false dichotomy to say you will either report on the issue and address a big public health issue or provide care to this person," Besser says. "I think it was an extremely effective way to do both. But, to tell you the truth, had it not been, I would have treated the woman and it just wouldn't have been a part of this story."
Some media critics have weighed in. In an otherwise laudatory column about CNN, James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Maybe Gupta can't be stopped from playing both reporter and doctor (he is a neurosurgeon, after all), but how many times are we going to have to watch that video of the good doctor bandaging the head of a 15-day-old girl?"
Jonathan Wald, the former executive producer of the NBC Nightly News and the Today Show, says it would be unnatural if reporters with expertise — like medical training — did not share their insights and experiences with viewers.
"I think the normal rules of journalistic participation are, in some instances, placed on hold during crises of this magnitude," Wald says. But, he adds, "There's a fine line between a reporter showing what's happening in a given situation and a reporter putting themselves in a story."
CNN's Anderson Cooper was accused of just that by some online commentators after he put down his small videocamera and guided a profusely bleeding Haitian boy away from some toughs nearby. CNN's cameraman, notably, kept right on taping — and the footage of him picking the boy up and carrying him to safety was also carried on the air.
Miles says viewers are unaware of the distortions caused by the intervention of the doctor-reporters. "We don't see the impact of that in terms of soaking up staff time, in terms of the people who are working on the ground, and also the diversion of resources to these patients who are selected for television portrayal," Miles says.
But beyond that, Miles says the stories that focus so much on heroic Americans undermines the support of the U.S. viewing public for helping Haitians help themselves build a functioning civil society and public health system. He says by far the greatest number of people aiding Haitians are their fellow citizens. If reporters who are also physicians want so badly to step out of their journalistic role to help, he argues, they should volunteer instead with relief agencies in Haiti — and set aside an hour a day to grant interviews to their network employers.