COMMENTS: Haiti’s TV Doctors Not Unethical--Just Misleading

"When we save the life of one person we feel that we saved the world. So we saved the world several times in this mission." This was Nancy Snyderman's approving quote from Col Ariel Bar of the Israel Defense Force field hospital in Port-au-Prince. Snyderman is NBC's in-house physician, on the scene in Haiti to practice medicine, finding time to fit in some reporting when not saving lives herself. Yet Bar's sentiment directly contradicts the first principle of emergency medicine in a disaster zone. The practice of triage dictates that medical personnel balance a single life against the common good. Where healthcare resources are in short supply, an individual must be ignored if more can be saved by deploying elsewhere.

There has been plenty of discussion about the medical reporting in the saturation television coverage following the Haiti earthquake. Most of it has worried about the ethics of the networks' in-house physicians, practicing both of their crafts simultaneously. Kevin Allocca sums up some of the controversies at He quotes Alessandra Stanley of The New York Times, who warns of "reportorial showboating" when correspondents interject their compassion in a self-congratulatory show. Matea Gold at the Los Angeles Times listed an entire practice of television doctors--CNN's Sanjay Gupta, CBS' Jennifer Ashton, ABC's Richard Besser--simultaneously treating the sick and reporting on the adequacy of Haitian healthcare.

ABC's Besser offered a tour of Port-au-Prince's General Hospital, checking wounds, adjusting IV drips, diagnosing broken bones: "Everywhere I turned yet another plea for help." CBS' Ashton recapped three days of pediatric surgery at a clinic with this grisly information: "I am sitting on top of an amputated arm and an amputated leg because I have nowhere to take them." Her heroic efforts on behalf of a two-month-old led to the baby being airlifted to an intensive care unit at Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital.

"It is very hard for an individual who is professionally and emotionally engaged in saving lives to be able to simultaneously step back from the medical work and practice independent journalistic truth-telling," was how the LATimes' Gold quoted Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute. Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, criticized journalists who join in relief efforts "even with the intention of dramatizing the humanity of the situation." Stated Smith: "Advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting."

Smith's criticism's, in turn, prompted Steve Buttry to set up "humanity" and "objectivity" as rival values before siding with humanity as preferable. Buzzmachine's Jeff Jarvis was blunter, paraphrasing SPJ's credo on Twitter as Don't cry and for God's sake don't cure anyone. "How tasteless!"

On National Public Radio, reporter David Folkenflik aired a yet more incendiary accusation against these TV doctors: "They are basically pulling telegenic people out of the queue and giving them exceptional resources," Steven Miles, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota, alleged. If true, they would not only be shoddy journalists, they would also risk losing their licenses to practice medicine.

Tyndall Report, too, worries about the performance of reporters-as-caregivers on the frontlines in Haiti's disaster zones. Our worries, though, are not ethical ones. They concern the quality of their journalism.

By the numbers, the Haiti earthquake has received saturation coverage. Day-by-day the three-network totals just for the regular half-hour nightly newscasts have been staggering, treating an international disaster with the intensity accorded to the domestic calamity of Hurricane Katrina: Wednesday, Thursday and Friday last week attracted 56, 55 and 50 minutes of coverage (95%, 91% and 83% of the newshole) just in the regular first half hours. ABC and NBC extended their newscasts to an hour on Wednesday and Thursday; CBS on Thursday. Even this week the day-by-day totals have been huge (42 min, 26, 17, 18 and 15--72%, 45%, 30%, 31% and 28% of the newshole). For comparison's sake the first week of Katrina coverage in 2005 was comparable (50 min, 53, 47, 53, 60); the second week showed greater staying power (35 min, 53, 41, 51, 32).

Television journalism from Haiti delivered the two types of coverage that video does best. No other medium can convey the sweep of a monumental disaster such as this earthquake. No other medium can provide the personal vignettes that make the human suffering so vivid.

There, writ large, is the dilemma evoked by Dr Snyderman's failure to respect the necessity of triage. In a catastrophe, triage demands that seemingly callous acts of indifference to individual suffering may be perpetrated for the greater good; and it demands that seemingly heroic acts of compassion may be castigated as harmful squandering of resources.

So television's special skills at documenting individual examples of fortitude and generosity and heartache can send a precisely misleading message.

Consider the case of ABC's Besser, who in a previous career headed the emergency response by the Centers for Disease Control during Hurricane Katrina. Within 48 hours of the earthquake, Besser was instructing his anchor Diane Sawyer on the priorities in Port-au-Prince: "Water is critical. After about three days, if people are not getting water, they are going to suffer health consequences. Their kidneys shut down. But what we saw today was chaos and the ability to distribute water is going to be extremely challenging. They have to be making water. They need to bring in big equipment and use seawater to make fresh water. That is going to have to happen. And they have to take control of the streets so they can distribute water."

Medical priorities apparently dictated that engineering infrastructure and civil security--not hands-on healthcare--were what were required to save lives. Yet Besser ignored his own strictures. Instead of staying on that story, next day he was in the role as a hands-on medicine man, conveying the impression that one-on-one medical intervention was the priority. It was not until five days later that ABC covered water distribution and then David Muir presented it as a local business opportunity rather than a public health necessity.

Under the normal formats of television news, it is the job of the newscast anchor to resolve contradictions that may arise between the emotional vignettes of individual crisis and the abstract overview of communal priorities. But for Haiti, the anchors left their chairs to involve themselves personally on the scene, casting their lots with the immediate and the emotional, undervaluing the long view. CBS' Katie Couric and NBC's Brian Williams were in Port-au-Prince three days last week; ABC's Sawyer on Thursday and Friday. Couric explained to Charlie Rose on PBS that her presence on the ground in Port-au-Prince was a symbolic one, to "send a message to viewers that this is a really big important story."

Couric found herself at the bedside of a 13-year-old boy, screaming in agony, sans anesthetic, as a Belgian M*A*S*H unit reset his broken leg. ABC's Sawyer finished her reporting tour in Port-au-Prince as a self-styled "actual hugger" at the Heartline Ministry orphanage, where "every child is placed for adoption."

Trying to offer an overview was David Martin, CBS' correspondent back at the Pentagon. Some five days after the earthquake, he reported on the failure of air traffic controllers at Port-au-Prince Airport to prioritize medical supplies and field hospitals. His source gave him anecdotes: "A Chinese plane hogged the runway for several hours while staging a photo-op; a Russian plane lied about being low on fuel in order to get clearance to land." As late as nine days after the earthquake, NBC's Mike Taibbi told us that there was a backlog of 1,400 relief supply flights unable to land at the airport.

Meanwhile NBC's Dr Snyderman took us to a trauma center where the airport snafu was taking its toll. "Wounds are now infected, rendering once healthy limbs useless. There are not enough antibiotics. If the infection spreads to the bloodstream, a patient will die a painful death." The center was amputating 70 limbs each day. "There is no end in sight…If this pace continues, Haiti will soon be a nation of amputees."

An initial priority at the airport, as ABC's David Wright told us on the first day of the relief effort, was to send in rescue teams to search through the rubble. In retrospect this was a warped priority. CBS' Couric reported that the lack of medical supplies was leading to 20,000 deaths daily. The first responding rescuers saved lives numbering in the hundreds. ABC's Dan Harris even reported on the "tinderbox of resentment" among some in Port-au-Prince that "foreign rescue teams are focusing an enormous amount of energy on saving people in places like the posh Montana Hotel, while average Haitians, laboring in vast, post-apocalyptic blightscapes, try to rescue people with their bare hands."

Again, television journalism's competence was undercut by its own virtuosity. How can video reporters resist retelling gripping tales of heroic rescues from living tombs--even though they know very well that the misapplication of resources on behalf of those rescues was killing thousands daily? Imagine the cognitive dissonance that the very newscast that featured Harris' reporting on the wasteful effort at the Montana Hotel should also feature anchor Sawyer sitting down with three hotel guests who were saved by that self same effort. Sawyer brought us the trio so that we could learn about "what people do under stress, what people do in the crucible…what we might do and what lessons we might have learned."

NBC aired the most gripping report of the rescued-from-the-rubble genre, filed by Bill Neely of its British newsgathering partner ITN. There is no way Neely's compelling reportage should be disdained--see it for yourself. At the same time, it is Exhibit A in the argument that video journalism of the Haiti disaster has been misleading.

Such anecdotes--of trapped individuals rescued from rubble or patients receiving heroic surgical care or orphans saved from poverty by adoption--give the impression that Haiti's crisis can be solved by an aggregation of individual acts of kindness.

In fact, the crisis requires a response that is institutional, infrastructural and programatic--not heartwarming at all. The problem with journalism that emphasizes personal care from TV doctors and human-interest anchors is not that those individuals are unethically personally involved. It is that their coverage works at the level of impractical emotion rather than rational explanation.


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