Journalism isn't brain surgery — a distinction wrapped in a witticism that CNN's Sanjay Gupta must be tired of hearing.
Yet while he was covering the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Nepal this year, the journalism evidently proved trickier than the brain surgery. Gupta, a star news correspondent and Emory University trauma neurosurgeon, appears to have misidentified a patient on whom he operated. The tale of how that happened, both twisty and subtle, throws fresh light on Gupta's dual roles as doctor and reporter.
On April 27, Gupta and CNN reported that he performed surgery on an 8-year-old girl in Kathmandu who had been badly injured in the quake. He told viewers the girl, Salina Dahal, was in dire circumstances and could die without the surgery. Later, he informed his audiences that Salina was progressing well.
Now, an international news operation based in San Francisco is muscularly challenging those accounts. The Global Press Journal reported late Tuesday night that the 8-year-old girl never underwent surgery. Instead, the journal says, Gupta helped perform surgery on a 14-year-old with traumatic head injuries.
In a telephone interview Tuesday night, I asked Gupta whether such a misstep worried him.
"I don't like to make mistakes," Gupta said. "Sometimes you are beholden to other people for information, or you are verifying details in other ways. It gives me pause as a doctor. It gives me pause as a journalist."
The mistake, Gupta said, was one born of havoc. "We want to be accurate, 100 percent. It was a chaotic situation, no doubt. You had a hospital turn into a massive triage area."
Not good enough, argued Cristi Hegranes, the founder and executive director of the San Francisco-based Global Press Institute and the publisher of The Global Press Journal.
"When foreign correspondents are parachuted into a place where they have no social, historical, cultural or political context, the coverage is automatically compromised," says Hegranes, herself a former stringer in Nepal. "Accuracy is not the top priority."
Remarkably, CNN appears to have initially gotten the story right and then, at Gupta's behest, reversed its reporting to offer mistaken information instead.
In a piece posted at 10:14 a.m. ET, CNN producer Tim Hume reported from Kathmandu that Gupta had aided the craniotomy of Sandyha Chalise, whom he identified as a 15-year-old girl (her actual age appears to be 14). At 2:30 p.m. that day, according to CNN spokeswoman Neel Khairzada, the network sent out an updated alert. The new story referred to Salina Dahal, the 8-year-old.
Salina did seek care that day, brought in by her grandfather. Her face and bandaged head are featured prominently in CNN's footage from the hospital and shown in brief segments on television touting Gupta's role.
Gupta told me it was his call to change the identity of the patient in Hume's story. He said he believed the inclusion of Sandyha was the mistaken version.
"I wanted to get the story right," Gupta said. "I didn't think the story was right. I had every reason to believe based on the [CAT] scans, based on what the doctors were telling me, based on the story they had told me, that the patient we had just operated on was an 8-year-old girl."
Gupta carefully noted he cannot say for certain that he was mistaken, as CNN has not yet independently verified the work of The Global Press Journal and its Nepal reporter Shilu Manandhar. A CNN producer is in the region attempting to retrace Manandhar's steps, Gupta and Khairzada said.
A note of transparency: I had never met Hegranes, or even heard of her, until late last month, when we were introduced over email by a mutual friend. Over the past few weeks, Hegranes shared elements of her team's reporting with me to try to build credibility for her case. I offered only two observations: Make sure you track down every loose end, and make sure to give CNN plenty of time to respond.
And from what I've seen, Global Press' reporting is truly extensive. After receiving the initial tip questioning Gupta's role, Manandhar and her colleagues spent weeks tracking down possible patients, obtaining hospital records of patients who underwent surgery, and identifying and interviewing doctors and other medical professionals who were present at the hospital that day in April. She traveled hundreds of miles to remote terrain to find the girls at the heart of the mystery. The pictures depict families who have no connection with television reporters who are international stars.
Some of the leads proved false. One doctor told Global Press that Gupta had not even performed surgery. CNN quickly disproved that claim with a brief clip of footage that showed Gupta wielding an instrument during an operation. He was, if anything, relatively modest on the air in characterizing his own role. He simply appears to have been fundamentally wrong about the identity of his patient.
The network nonetheless failed to flag for readers that Hume's original digital article had been subject to wholesale revision a little more than four hours after its initial posting. Gupta seemed surprised to learn that the online story did not carry a correction.
Nor has CNN offered any warning as of this writing to readers or viewers that it no longer is sure how solid it believes these stories to be, despite fielding questions from Global Press for more than a week.
Critics have previously thrown shade at CNN's decision to treat Gupta as the hero of his own adventures. He has performed surgeries in Haiti, Iraq and other places while covering crises. After a hurricane devastated Haiti in early 2010, several observers questioned the way in which doctors who are also reporters covered the catastrophe.
"If you're there as a medical professional and you feel, for reasons of humanity, that you have to serve as a medical professional, turn the camera off. It's not that complicated," Philip Kennicott, a cultural critic for the Washington Post, told NPR's Michel Martin in 2010. He called the press's presence "self-aggrandizing, cynical and narcissistic."
Kelly McBride, a senior scholar on media ethics with the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Fla., also told Martin in 2010 that it was exploitative to serve both as physician and reporter.
"If they're treating patients, they have an obligation to treat that patient with dignity," McBride said. "Clearly those patients have no capability of consenting to ... having their medical situation becoming part of a news story."
Hegranes said foreign reporters predominantly arrive in exotic locations to cover war, famine, disaster and disease. And she contended that the mainstream media take less care in reporting on people in such lands than they would for Americans or citizens of other highly developed countries. "I think the assumption is that no one will check," she said.
A couple of disputes that still have not been resolved: Hegranes said 8-year-old Salina's head injuries were not as serious as 14-year-old Sandyha's. Gupta said both had epidural hematomas and that his meticulous notes will back up his recollection of having seen Salina's CAT scans.
Hegranes also said the girls' family members said Gupta had not gotten permission to broadcast their medical details. Gupta said he tries hard during crises to treat patients with respect and to ensure they know he intends to build stories around their care. He said his actions in Nepal were consistent with his concern.
More often than not, Gupta said Tuesday night, the camera is already off when he puts on his surgical garb in an emergency. "There's a lot of medical work that I do that you never hear about," he said. "The vast majority of medical work I've done in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, you've never asked about because you've never heard about it."
And Gupta told me that he understands the conflict between the imperatives of being a reporter and a doctor. "I don't know I've found the precise right way to handle these things," he said. "I want to make sure I can report objectively after being engaged so directly like this."
But, he added, "You gotta be a doctor first. And you gotta do this."
As a reporter, he said it's important to be completely accurate. "That's our profession. ... If you allow imprecision, it becomes very, very slippery."