Crossing the Line from Physician to Journalist




The recent coverage of the devastation and destruction after the earthquake in Haiti has had an unintended consequence; the public is now questioning the legitimacy and ethics of the physicians who masquerade as journalists.

For decades, there has been an increased interest in and awareness of the need for physicians and the medical community to work more closely with journalists and the mass media to guarantee the accurate and appropriate dissemination of health information. Training programs for both physicians and journalists now include innovative curriculum to promote collaboration and build a mutual respect between the professions that, in the end, promotes public health and safety. Publishing or broadcasting clear, consistent and contemporary health and medical information to the general public is a shared responsibility of physicians and journalists. But, what happens when the physician and the journalist is the same person?

The advents of 24-hour news, numerous magazines and blogs galore have opened the flood gates for professionals who want to share their knowledge with the public. And gain a little fame in the process. The world does need health care professionals with better-than-average communication skills to share the latest research or medical news in layman’s terms. But, the world does not need physicians who have more experience holding a microphone than a scalpel. Case after case of physician-journalists helping Haitian victims were broadcast on television over the last few weeks, making the physician the story rather than the Haitians in need of help. One would hope that the physicians were simply overcome by their desire to help, and forgot that there were cameras rolling. But, a cynical eye would notice that every network seemed to “one-up” the others with broadcasts of “our doctor did this” and “our medical correspondent did that.” If the physicians really wanted to help the devastated population, they could easily travel to Haiti with a volunteer medical staff, rather than with a producer and a camera crew.  Plus, if viewers wanted to see surgery performed on television, they could watch any of a number of reality series that depict medical procedures.

The sensationalizing of the story is hardly the only downside to this type of reporting. What happens if there are complications from the treatment provided by the physician-journalists? What about patient privacy? What happens when every reporter decides to jump into the story? What happens to the just-the-facts reporting that the public needs?

The public increasingly turns to the media for health information, and inaccurate or inappropriate medical reporting damages public welfare, as well as perception and opinion about the health care community. All reporters — trained journalists and physicians-turned-correspondents alike — have the responsibility to remain objective and report facts of stories, be it medical information or news of death and destruction in crisis-stricken areas.

References

Anthony, S., Lozano-Calderon, S., & Ring, D. (2007). Stigmatization of Repetitive Hand Use in Newspaper Reports of Hand Illness HAND, 3 (1), 30-33 DOI: 10.1007/s11552-007-9052-4

Campbell, N., Heath, J., Bouknight, J., Rudd, K., & Pender, J. (2009). Speaking Out For Mental Health: Collaboration of Future Journalists and Psychiatrists Academic Psychiatry, 33 (2), 166-168 DOI: 10.1176/appi.ap.33.2.166

Catherine, N., Ko, J., & Barr, R. (2008). Getting the Word Out: Advice on Crying and Colic in Popular Parenting Magazines Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, 29 (6), 508-511 DOI: 10.1097/DBP.0b013e31818d0c0c

Strasser T, Gallagher J. The ethics of health communication. World Health Forum. 1994;15(2):175-177.

  • J Fish

    I understand your concerns, but I think this is a very tiny percentage of doctors involved in this activity. I was in Haiti before, during, and after the earthquake, and there MANY doctors (the vast majority) that have nothing to do with the media and are simply doing what they can to help people. When it comes to camera-hogs, I think the numbers are small enough to render it an irrelevant issue, especially within the context of this wide-scale of a disaster.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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