The quarantine against possible Ebola exposure ends this week for Dr. Nancy Snyderman, but the troubles clearly aren’t over for NBC News’ chief medical editor.
An admitted lapse in the quarantine, combined with a curiously imprecise explanation, unleashed a furious response. NBC must now decide whether Snyderman’s credibility is too damaged for her to continue reporting on Ebola or other medical issues and, if so, for how long. The network would not comment.
Snyderman, a surgeon who spent 17 years as a medical correspondent for ABC News and has been at NBC since 2006, covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and worked briefly with Ashoka Mukpo, the cameraman who caught the virus and is now being treated in Nebraska. Upon returning to the United States, Snyderman and her crew voluntarily agreed to quarantine themselves for 21 days, the longest known incubation period for the disease. They have shown no symptoms.
Yet New Jersey health officials ruled that her quarantine should be mandatory after Snyderman and her crew were spotted getting takeout food from a New Jersey restaurant.
NBC won’t give details about who actually went into the restaurant, or even how many of its employees are being quarantined. Snyderman issued a statement saying “members of our group” violated their pledge.
More than 1,100 people have subsequently written on Snyderman’s Facebook page, many expressing anger. There were suggestions she should be fired or lose her medical license, and some viewers said they wouldn’t trust her again. Snyderman’s failure to be more specific about the lapse or take greater responsibility was another flashpoint.
Snyderman’s “arrogance and dismissiveness” create a huge PR and credibility problem for NBC, said Kelly McBride, an expert on ethics for the journalism think tank the Poynter Institute.
“People are so freaked out about Ebola that the problem NBC has now is that whenever they put her on the air, some news consumers are going to see the woman who put others at risk, rather than the reporter and professional with great experience,” McBride said.
McBride suggested that Snyderman “lay low” or take a leave of absence. Certainly she should not report on Ebola anymore for the network, she said.
Susan Dentzer, a longtime health journalist and commentator for National Public Radio and the PBS “NewsHour,” said people shouldn’t forget that Snyderman put herself at risk to travel to Africa and cover the story. The public is reacting to a fear of Ebola instead of science, she said.
“She and her team clearly should have observed the terms of their quarantine, and she has said clearly that they made a mistake,” Dentzer said. “But let’s put it in a broader perspective.”
Before Snyderman’s trip for takeout, ABC News’ medical expert arguably had bigger problems. ABC health editor Dr. Richard Besser was in Africa at the same time as Snyderman and did not quarantine himself upon his return. That led ABC News President James Goldston to send his staff a memo explaining that the network was following medical advice.
Still, Besser was disinvited to a speaking engagement at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, he wrote last week in the Washington Post. Some colleagues have avoided him.
“I’ve been surprised by how many colleagues have waved from across the room and quickly made an exit,” Besser wrote. “Others won’t enter my office.”
NBC could face a competitive disadvantage if Snyderman is taken off medical stories. Robert Bazell, the network’s longtime health and science correspondent, left last year to teach at Yale.
An important first step for Snyderman will be to explain to viewers exactly what happened, perhaps on a venue like the “Today” show, said Bill Wheatley, a longtime NBC executive who now teaches journalism at Columbia University.
“If she and the network are more forthcoming about the whole matter, I believe that her credibility can be preserved,” Wheatley said.