Commentary: TV news needs to show us the suffering from COVID-19 at ground zero inside hospitals

Tribune Content Agency

Sounds of coughing and moaning throughout the room.

Corridors overflowing with gurneys bearing COVID-19 patients, some in postures of distress.

Sheets of plastic taped to walls, makeshift borders aimed at protection and some semblance of privacy.

This is what ground zero looks like in the war on COVID-19, according to a CNN report that aired Monday. I believe we need to see more of these images from media outlets of the horrible truth shown here.

We have been hearing for the last two weeks about how trauma centers in cities like New York have been under siege as the COVID-19 toll has climbed. Cable and network TV brought us voices of medical workers who were going into battle day and night risking their lives. Their accounts of life and death at the front were often chilling and heartbreaking. God bless the workers for telling us what they could about the reality of the pandemic.

But we on the other side of the screen have mostly been hearing how bad it was, not seeing it. The core journalistic admonition of showing rather than telling was not generally being followed. And in this sorry era of spin when citizens are being told by the president of the United States what a great job the federal government is doing in combating the disease, we need to see what that really looks at the point where life can end and death begin for victims of COVID-19.

“Every corridor, every corner, every ward, every inch of Brookdale Medical Center in Brooklyn now inundated with those suffering from COVID-19,” CNN’s Miguel Marquez says in a voice-over at the opening of his report, as the camera surveys the misery described above.

Standing in a corridor outside the trauma center, Marquez interviews Dr. Arabia Mollette, an emergency room physician. Both are wearing protective gear.

“What I see on a daily basis is pain, despair, suffering and health care disparities,” Mollette says.

“What do you need right now?” Marquez asks.

“We need prayers. We need support. We need gowns. We need gloves. We need masks. We need more vents (ventilators). We need more medical space. We need psychosocial support as well,” Mollette says. “It’s not easy coming in here when you know what you’re getting ready to face.”

As Marquez tells viewers of another death that occurred during the filming of the report, the camera shows a gurney with a covered corpse being wheeled to the state-provided semitrailer parked in the rear of the hospital that serves as a temporary morgue.

There are large ethical and legal considerations when reporting and filming such hospital scenes. Patient privacy and respect must always be at the forefront of journalistic thinking when doing so. Medical institutions must privilege patient rights in deciding about access. In a deadly crisis like this, the ethical considerations are similar to those in coverage of war zones. Do you show horribly wounded victims? If you don’t, how do civilians know the price of going to war?

I have taught media ethics for 20 years at Goucher College, and I believe CNN behaved responsibly in this report. Faces of all patients were pixelated, and medical workers were wearing masks or other protective gear that would make it very hard to identify anyone except those talking to Marquez.

I first saw this CNN report Monday morning, and thought maybe I would write about it. Perhaps seeing it would help some of the more reckless among us follow stay-at-home directives like the ones Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced Monday.

Then Monday afternoon, I saw President Trump’s press conference, and I knew I had to write about it. There stood Trump telling reporters what a terrific job his administration was doing in getting personal protective gear to hospitals — so successful he would soon be shipping medical equipment to other countries.

Asked about reports of medical supply shortages in New York City, Trump repeated his totally unsubstantiated claim that the equipment his administration was sending might be “going out the back door,” meaning hospital workers were stealing it.

Troubling as the CNN report was to watch, I am glad I got the chance to see and hear with my own eyes and ears what life is like at Brookdale Medical Center. Such images and words are one of the strongest antidotes journalism can deliver to Rose Garden lies. We need more, more, more to fight that contagion.


©2020 The Baltimore Sun

Visit The Baltimore Sun at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.