Skip to main content

Editorial: Priorities, Please

As the horrors unfolded last week following the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti, much attention eventually shifted to whether news organizations covering the aftermath were violating certain journalistic principles. The questions surrounded whether medical correspondents were getting too involved in the story.

In the Los Angeles Times, Poynter Institute journalism-values scholar Bob Steele said: “I think it's 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.”

The comment, and others like it, came as medical correspondents from multiple major news outlets put down their microphones and jumped into the fray, performing medical procedures on people in need, from triage to brain surgery.

Our first take on this is simple: Where exactly is the conflict? And our additional opinion: Any minute they are on is thankfully one less minute being devoted to the NBC late-night silliness.

The question of a journalist getting too close to a story is something we do not take lightly here, whether it's a reporter covering a political campaign, a business or even a sports team. But in this case, we're not sure where the harm is.

Does the fact that Sanjay Gupta or Nancy Snyderman actually helped people really interfere with their roles as journalists? Let's be honest: None of the medical correspondents are diving into tricky two-sided issues in this case. The same expertise that makes them valuable as journalists reporting on the tragedy and its health risks, now and down the road, also virtually ensures that they will be called on to lend a hand if a life, rather than a deadline, hangs in the balance.

Are they at risk of making themselves and their network part of the story? Yes. But if the alternative is to have medical correspondents refusing to help save lives in an emergency, it is an acceptable risk. We just don't see anything that is making Edward R. Murrow roll over in his grave.

But what could make journalistic greats past and present stir uncomfortably just a bit is the ridiculous amount of attention being paid to NBC's late-night mess. Mea culpa alert: We are guilty of this as well. But it is less the television trade press and more the mainstream press that has gotten too caught up in all of this.

At the end of the day, this NBC shakeup is a story about two unsuccessful shows getting canceled, and the very rich hosts of both shows getting to keep filling their coffers despite bombing on-air. Put up against the backdrop of a natural disaster in a poverty-stricken land or even a special election last week that could alter the political landscape at a crucial time for our country, it is—pardon the expression—comical how much attention Jay and Conan are getting.

On the other end of the spectrum, the journalism being done in Haiti is important—and we know it is costly. In a story this week, B&C's Marisa Guthrie looks at just how expensive it is to cover events like Haiti, at a time when the network news business is not exactly printing money.

Events like Haiti are a reminder of just how important television news can be. Inside the country, it can literally save lives, and abroad it stands not only to inform, but indirectly push those of us with means to help if we so choose—and we should so choose.

So, if a couple of doctors with press passes want to help some needy people and then jump on-camera soon after, we can live with that. As long as those “needy” people aren't talk show hosts complaining about getting fired from their $20-million-a-year jobs. And by “fired” we mean, of course, moved to another $20-million-a-year job in another time slot or on another network.