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Gupta defended cyclist Lance Armstrong against doping charges in a CNN report. However, he neglected to mention there was counter evidence to his defense or that his opinion was presented on CNN in the context of his personal connection to Armstrong. The public should have been told in the report that Gupta serves on Armstrong's foundation board of trustees as a member.

I was alerted to an ethical question weeks ago by a tweet from an old medical journalism professor and from Andrew Holtz of Holtzreport.com: Should CNN’s resident health guru, Dr. Sanjay Gupta be interviewing Lance Armstrong, when he is on the Lance Armstrong Foundation “LiveStrong” board of directors?

Is there really any wonder how Gupta and CNN were able to tout scoring “an exclusive interview with the cycling champ“?

It is notable that some journalism organizations don’t allow for sources to pay for a reporter’s lunch. Questions about Gupta and Armstrong, therefore arise, as to who pays Gupta’s travel expenses when he attends board meetings? Gupta? The Armstrong foundation? CNN? What monies have changed hands and what are CNN policies?

In the July 27, 2009 broadcast version of the report, Gupta’s set up for the piece quickly mentions the foundation’s name, “LiveStrong.” But he never explains what it is or that he is making an important disclosure–that LiveStrong is the name of Lance Armstrong’s personal foundation, and Armstrong serves as Chairman. Gupta states: “Now I sit on the board of LiveStrong, and I can tell you, after a four-year hiatus, it was a big decision for him. I caught up with him just a few hours after he took third place at the Tour de France to talk about some of the challenges, to talk about some of the criticisms that have been waged against him, and how he responds to those and to simply ask him why he decided to get involved in all of this again.” See transcript.

In the CNN online print story version of the broadcast, titled “Armstrong on doping: ‘I think I’ve answered the question’,” Gupta also reports on Lance Armstrong’s third-place finish in this year’s Tour de France, and quotes the cyclist continuing to deny that he has ever used performance-enhancing drugs. Again, Gupta does not disclose his personal relationship to Armstrong or his professional relationship to the Lance Armstrong Foundation—a cancer research and patient support organization—anywhere in the piece. There is no mention of of the foundation name “LiveStrong”.

Gupta has a history of praising Armstrong on CNN. Here is a quote from a July 15, 2005 CNN transcript . “SANJAY GUPTA, MD, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): He’s possibly the best endurance athlete in the world. Most of us know Lance Armstrong’s name, but few know how he does it. It all starts with his genes….”

It may be helpful to cite the specific ethical values at stake in this case. The Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Code (SPJ.org) journalists should

1. Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
2. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
3. Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
4. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

According to these values listed above, it is important for journalists to disclose conflicts ahead of time to avoid the perception of conflicts of interest and the actualities. In this case, Gupta runs the risk of looking like he’s trying to cover up his positive bias towards and a hidden close relationship to the cyclist by not clearly citing his affiliation to Armstrong.

In the online story Gupta quotes Armstrong’s on camera denials of any drug use:

“I’ve been tested more than anybody else. If I can take four years off and come back at the age of 38 with more controls than anyone else on planet Earth and get third place in the hardest sporting event in the world, I think we‘ve answered the question.“

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“There’s never been solid evidence to back up the accusations,” says Gupta, noting at the end of his report that Armstrong’s work in cancer research and advocacy, not drugs, is what keeps the 38 year old in the game.

Hmmm. The fact is some reporters, scientists and official cycling organizations disagree as to whether there is really no “solid evidence” that Armstrong has used performance-enhancing drugs. The CNN audience should have been told about this fact and that there is a clear dispute.

By not providing this background of differing beliefs by experts, it is fair to argue that CNN was being dishonest and inaccurate by omission.

For example, in 2005 the French newspaper L’Equipe reported samples of urine taken from the cyclist in 1999 had tested positive for EPO, a banned hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. Though the accuracy of the tests was naturally disputed by Armstrong and his advocates, there isn’t a consensus on their illegitimacy. Australia’s The Age.com.au also reported in 2005 that “one of his [Armstrong’s] support team revealed that she was once asked to dispose of drug paraphernalia” and that 6 tests came up retrospectively positive, not just one.

Gupta has an established a de facto conflict of interest and CNN bosses have allowed it. With CNN regularly reporting on Armstrong, Gupta’s position as a member of the Lance Armstrong Foundation board surely compromises his objectivity and, as a result, his journalistic integrity .

In light of this recent brush off by Gupta of opinion and for some, evidence of Armstrong’s wrongdoing, how can the public trust Gupta, say, putting together an investigative piece for CNN on doping in sports? It is doubtful now that Gupta would include Armstrong in his report, much less offering up the damning evidence he neglected to present before. Indeed, such revelations if they should arise–ergo, Armstrong turns out to have been doping–would be embarrassing to Gupta, and to CNN for having his position on the board of Armstrong’s foundation.

LiveStrong is part of what is primarily a cancer advocacy foundation. But it bears Armstrong’s name, and thus it is in the foundation’s own best interest to preserve Armstrong’s good reputation and keep money flowing in. Gupta’s role as a member of the board is to not air dirty laundry but to keep Armstrong looking clean.

Gupta’s role as a journalist and his media employer’s responsibility is to the public and truth. Such conflicts of interest are the seedbeds that grow public distrust –not journalistic truth-telling.

At the very least, knowing that Gupta did not disclose his relationship with Armstrong in the CNN report makes his defense of Armstrong’s integrity suspect at best. The tarnish from such an ethical lapse upon CNN’s and Gupta’s reputations is real and ongoing if not corrected.

We are writing Armstrong, his foundation and CNN to ask for comment. Updates will be posted here.

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CNN’s Sanjay Gupta defends Lance Armstrong against doping charges

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