TV Doctor/Reporters Cause Ethical Rumblings, but the Fault Line is Health Illiteracy

January 22, 2010

By Kate Johnson

The earthquake in Haiti has delivered a different sort of seismic upheaval in the fields of both medicine and journalism, as professionals in both camps debate the ethics in the niche zone where their respective crafts overlap. Television MDs like Dr. Sanjay Gupta and Dr. Richard Besser have helped deliver babies and stitch up injuries with the cameras rolling, creating rumblings and debates about the blurring of journalistic and medical boundaries.

With journalistic clarity, The Society of Professional Journalists issued an unambiguous scolding: “Advocacy, self promotion, offering favors for news and interviews, injecting oneself into the story or creating news events for coverage is not objective reporting, and it ultimately calls into question the ability of a journalist to be independent, which can damage credibility,” SPJ President Kevin Smith said in a statement.

Characteristically, the American Medical Association was less specific and more cautious in urging restraint: “The spontaneous volunteer has no place in disaster response,” asserted James J. James, MD, DrPH, MHA, director of the Center for Public Health Preparedness and Disaster Response, at an American Medical Association (AMA) webinar.

But still, the television networks -– including ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN –- are milking the coverage of their physician reporters for all it’s worth.

We all know the TV networks want viewers, and viewers mean money – so we can assume the TV networks know their viewers want to see this stuff.

But as a member of the American Medical Writers Association I was privy the other day to an MD and fellow-member’s disgust: “If [the MD/reporter] said that with crush injuries, adequate hydration, preferably IV crystalloid, is essential to stave off the deleterious effects of myoglobinemia on renal function, I’d be sufficiently impressed,” he quipped on the AMWA listserve.

I’m not an MD but I too would have perked up significantly if some interesting medical information was injected into the Haiti coverage.

But another commenter on the listserve, a former reporter and city editor said, “any reporter who returned from a catastrophe with a detailed description of biological processes involved in dehydration would in a heartbeat find himself on the copy desk looking for misplaced commas.”

As a former TV reporter myself, now turned medical journalist, I take great issue with the superficiality and “dumbing down” of medicine and science for TV viewers and the general public.

Yes, there is some translation that must sometimes be done, but medical journalists can play a subtle role in raising the bar when it comes to the public’s poor health literacy.

“Myoglobinemia” might be a word that’s a little hard for the average reader to get their head (or tongue) around – but the concept is not.

David Brown of the Washington Post never mentions the word, but does a great job of explaining it, and unfolding an intellectually inspiring medical story about how the disaster-zone form differs from the battle-zone form: which means altered treatment can literally save arms and legs.

Reacting to the scolding of TV MDs by the Society of Professional Journalists Gary Schwitzer, of the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism & Mass Communication and publisher of issued a tweet: “Does anyone think ANY network TV news exec cares what SPJ says? Sad reality. Still, kudos to SPJ. It didn’t stay on the sidelines.”

I agree with Schwitzer that journalistic standards are likely not high on the priority list of most news executives. But as I said on the AMWA listserve, I do believe they are important to most journalists.

When we are discouraged from doing good journalism, when TV MDs resort to self-promotion rather than tackling a complex story about myoglobinemia, it is because executive vice-presidents know that’s what the general public wants.

The public’s health literacy is usually assumed to be low, and few big news organizations are willing to take the leap, spend the money and invest the effort towards making legitimate, accurate medical news relevant and interesting to their audiences.

In his report on the state of health journalism in the U.S., Gary Schwitzer describes consumers as “confused, often lacking the information to assume the driver’s seat” in the current crossroads of health reform . “In the middle of this crossroads stands a profession that could be, and often is, one of the traffic cops trying to help citizens navigate tumultuous times: health journalism.”

To do this job well, health journalists need to adhere not only to ethical principals – both journalistic and medical – they also need to raise the health literacy bar when it comes to delivering medical information.

One thought on “TV Doctor/Reporters Cause Ethical Rumblings, but the Fault Line is Health Illiteracy

  1. Great post, Kate. I would also love to see medicine and more generally science reporting less “dumbed down” than it is at the moment. It’s true that reporters would lose part of their audience if they start actually putting some science in their science reporting. But if, as you suggest, journalists actually do their job and figure out how to make the science understandable, they probably wouldn’t lose very much of their audience, and they’d be doing a great public service.

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