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EPA/Daniel Barry
Well, this is embarrassing.

CNN is accused of misleading viewers about Sanjay Gupta’s brain surgery on a Nepal earthquake victim

A grassroots network of reporters in Nepal is alleging that CNN correspondent Sanjay Gupta grossly misrepresented his involvement in the brain surgery of a local girl after the country’s April 25 earthquake.

A CNN video report identified Gupta’s patient as 8 year-old Salina Dahal, but according to the Global Press Journal, Gupta in fact operated on a different girl with entirely different injuries—14-year-old Sandhya Chalise. GPJ reporter Shilu Manandhar tracked down Salina, and determined that she did not undergo any brain surgery at all. Sandhya, who did, is recovering well.

A related CNN blog post, published before the video report, initially identified Sandhya as Gupta’s patient—but it was changed, without any correction or editor’s note, to swap in Salina’s name and misattributing Sandhya’s injuries to her, shortly before the video aired.  In the video, Gupta examines 8-year-old Salina Dahal at Bir Hospital in Kathmandu, says she needs surgery, and later—after the report showed operating room footage—tells viewers that he successfully operated on her.

In an interview with NPR last night, Gupta said he requested that change because he believed that he had operated on Salina, not Sandhya. He added that 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.” Manandhar’s article reports that a CNN spokeswoman, “after initially insisting that Gupta performed brain surgery on Salina, later released a statement indicating that Gupta might not have been fully aware of who was on his operating table.”

In response to that statement, one Nepal doctor told Manandhar: “A good surgeon knows the identity of the patient he’s operating on,” otherwise he “is not a surgeon, he is a butcher.”

An editor’s note was added to the April 27 CNN.com article today (July 8), acknowledging that “questions have arisen about the identity of the girl who Dr. Sanjay Gupta helped operate on,” and ”CNN is looking into those questions and will update our coverage as warranted.”

Straddling the line between journalist and neurosurgeon—between being an observer of the news, and a participant—is something Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent has done with much success so far. He’s won Emmy Awards for his television work while also reaching the highest professional heights as a doctor, with a professorship at Emory University’s medical school, operating privileges at an Atlanta hospital, and a 2009 offer from US president Barack Obama to become the US surgeon general, which he declined.

But the ethics of holding these dual roles have been questioned, most recently when Gupta’s work in Nepal was made public. “As a journalist with medical training, do you really need to film the times when you get involved?” said Connie St. Louis, who directs the science journalism program at City University in London, in an interview with the Guardian in May. “There’s certainly a possible confidentiality issue, as well as the potential for self-promotion. If you film the journalist doing the medical procedure, they become the story.”

CNN did not respond to a request for comment from Quartz.

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