Sanjay Gupta, assistant professor of neurosurgery at Emory University School of Medicine and associate chief of the neurosurgery service at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, is best known as CNN’s chief medical correspondent, work for which he has received multiple Emmy awards. Gupta spoke with the Harvard Political Review during a visit to the Harvard Institute of Politics.
Harvard Political Review: You have been covering the spread of Ebola over the past couple of months. This headline appeared on CNN as part of its coverage: “Ebola: ‘The ISIS of Biological Agents’?” Do you feel you have the space for accurate, nuanced journalism while surrounded by pressures to create sensational or shocking headlines?
Sanjay Gupta: Is that what they wrote? One thing I’ll say, just from a pragmatic standpoint, is that that particular story wasn’t something [my team] was involved in. I think there is sometimes a disconnect between headlines that pop up on television and the voices that come behind them. It’s true, I think, in all aspects of media, that that there have been times when headlines are put on articles that really don’t reflect their content. Having said that, it’s not the sort of thing that we want to put out there, because frankly it reflects a little bit of laziness. You have two big stories in the news right now, one is Ebola, and one is ISIS, and, I think someone was probably trying to be cute in connecting the two in some way.
To answer the question, I think in some ways with scientific topics we are at a little bit of an advantage; ultimately, the science is what grounds the stories that we do. There’s less subjectivity in the stories, so when it comes to Ebola, we can talk about what it is, and how it’s transmitted, and mortality rates; you know, there are real things, and you want to present it in a way that is accessible to people. How they perceive it, how much they worry about it, ultimately is up to the [viewer]. But to tell them how to think about it by calling it “The ISIS of Biological Agents,” is not something that we do. I think we try to stick to the facts.
[The work that we do] does require a lot of homework. You can have some amount of institutional knowledge in these areas, but with Ebola, save for a few infectious disease experts who have been travelling back and forth to Central and West Africa, there aren’t many people in this country who have had a significant amount of institutional knowledge. So you have to learn, you do a lot of homework. But the subjectivity, I think, is more on the shoulders of the viewer or reader in these cases.
HPR: Also on Ebola—why, in your opinion, have we seen no significant fundraising efforts so far? This is interesting both when you compare it with other medical campaigns, like the huge success of the ALS fundraising challenge this summer, and when compared with other international crises, that have drawn both donations and significant relief work by volunteers.
SG: The ALS ice bucket challenge really was an interesting movement that defied, I think, some of the “laws” of this type of fundraising, in that ALS is a rare disease—and typically, rare diseases get short shrift. I think with Ebola, up until this year, it was an “over there, different continent” disease that was the stuff of almost fiction novels, that didn’t have broad relevance. So as far as American fundraising efforts were concerned, particularly private sector fundraising, it just didn’t seem as relevant to people here, it wasn’t something that they would care about if they were asked to donate money.
HPR: But even over the past couple of months?
SG: I think that’s going to change. I think there will be more patients who come here. There may be very specific fundraising efforts towards the medications. You know, many of the medications have been funded in large part by the Department of Defense, because at one time they thought that it could potentially be a biological warfare agent. But the private sector could also step up.
I also think that of the countries that support the World Health Organization, 80 percent of them did not make good on their commitments this past year. That may change as well. So there may be more dollars flowing into the root cause of the problem, which is still West African.
HPR: One of the interesting things about your feature on marijuana last year was the huge divide that it highlighted between how much knowledge existed on the topic, and how much of it was actually available to legislators and being used by them. Are there similar issues in the medical space that may merit a deeper look, where you think there is a disparity between what the research shows and what lawmakers know?
SG: I think there are other treatments that fall into the same spectrum as marijuana, which I think is an issue which circles around social, political and scientific norms. You know, I think what was confusing, and what I myself fell prey to was, was that when you look at the research overall you get a particular point of view—and it required more digging and looking at other studies [to see a different perspective]. I think frankly, most people who vote on these things don’t look at the science, and so they count on others summarizing it in a way that sways them one way or the other. So whether it be marijuana, or new medications for rare diseases, or even things like psychedelic drugs for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—some of the earliest studies on using ecstasy, for example, for PTSD, took place here at Harvard—I think there are a bunch of issues that fall into that category, where there is a real disconnect between what is capable of being done, and what is actually done. But a lot of times the vote is not on the science anyways, even if they do know it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons