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The TV coverage of the disaster in Haiti has featured some people wearing two hats: reporters who are also doctors. And they're providing medical care on camera. As NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik reports, their dual role raises ethical questions.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Nancy Snyderman is a head and neck surgeon on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania's Medical School, but she's far better known as a medical correspondent for NBC News. And in Haiti, she's having trouble separating her responsibilities.
Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN (Head and Neck Surgeon, University of Pennsylvania Medical School; Medical Correspondent, NBC News): I didn't sleep at all the first night I was here, wrestling with just that. 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.
(Soundbite of television program)
Dr. SNYDERMAN: With a broken arm and severe infection, we turn the dining room table you got it? One, two three, OK into an operating table to clean his wound.
FOLKENFLIK: NBC viewers saw Snyderman treat that Haitian man. And other doctor reporters, reporting from Haiti, have also provided emergency care, such as CNN's Sanjay Gupta and ABC's new senior medical editor, Richard Besser.
Besser is the former acting director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. One story for ABC's "Good Morning America" took an unexpectedly personal turn as Besser aided a very young, pregnant woman who was about to give birth in a camp.
(Soundbite of television program, "Good Morning America")
Dr. RICHARD BESSER (Senior Medical Editor, ABC News): We're trying desperately to find a hospital that might take her. She probably needs to have a Caesarian section because I don't think that this baby will come out on its own.
FOLKENFLIK: Besser says the reporting he's doing is important, but he can't abandon his training as a doctor.
Dr. BESSER: 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. 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 part of the story.
FOLKENFLIK: The idea of a doctor treating a patient in need seems uncontroversial, yet some media critics and medical ethicists say TV doctors are putting themselves in the story at the expense of their patients and of even good medical practice.
Steven Miles is a doctor and bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. He calls much of the coverage problematic.
Dr. STEVEN MILES (Bioethicist, University of Minnesota): What disturbs me about the media doctors is that they are basically pulling telegenic people out of the queue and giving them exceptional resources.
FOLKENFLIK: Miles was also medical director of the American Refugee Committee, and he's overseen relief efforts in places like Cambodia and Banda Aceh. He says viewers are unaware of the distortions caused by the intervention of the doctor reporters.
Dr. MILES: 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.
FOLKENFLIK: But it's not unreasonable to expect reporters with medical training in Haiti to share insights and expertise, says Jonathan Wald. He's the former executive producer of "The NBC Nightly News." Wald says the rules change during crises of this magnitude. But he also warns of the risk of reporting in the first-person medical.
Mr. JONATHAN WALD (Former Executive Producer, "NBC Nightly News"): There's a fine line between a reporter showing what's happening in a given situation, and a reporter putting themselves in a story.
Dr. SNYDERMAN: And therein lies the struggle.
FOLKENFLIK: NBC's Nancy Snyderman.
Dr. SNYDERMAN: 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.
FOLKENFLIK: Bioethicist Steve Miles argues TV news doctors should simply volunteer with relief groups, and can make themselves available for interviews one hour a day.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.
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