Lesson 12: Keep a low profile.

In Army basic training, soldiers are required to go through an infiltration course. They crawl 100 yards beneath barbed wire 18 inches from the ground while rounds of live ammunition are fired 36 inches above them. They learn from this exercise that survival in combat requires the soldier to keep a low profile. Providing the enemy a large, readily visible target is not conducive to a long life.

The chief medical examiner—particularly one employed by a government—also does well to keep a low profile. It is the best way to go for a long career.

Many of my colleagues disagree with me on this point. They feel that the public lightly esteems forensic pathologists and medical examiners because they do not promote themselves. They feel that the doctor should look for ways to appear in the media spotlight, commenting freely on the sensational case of the moment, allowing cameras to have free reign in the county morgue to photograph what goes on. How will the public know how good a job we do, they wonder, if we do not promote ourselves?

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that you become a recluse. I am not suggesting that you refuse to speak to all reporters. I am not suggesting that you refuse to speak to families about the death of their loved ones or to offer needed information and comfort. I am not suggesting that you refuse to serve on committees or participate in other activities that promote the general welfare of the people you serve. These activities are all part of the job description of a medical examiner and are necessary. Refusing to do these activities is not what I mean by keeping a low profile.

I am writing about the desire and even the temptation to court the media in order to get in front of a camera. We all have egos, and we all want to enjoy the adulation of an admiring public.

Dr. Alan Moritz in his treatise on classical mistakes in forensic pathology describes the “mistake of talking too soon, too much, or to the wrong people1.” Speaking hastily into a microphone about your opinions, particularly early on in an investigation, not only can lead to public embarrassment but may also compromise the investigation and prosecution of a case. Reporters may breathlessly direct their questions to me on the cusp of breaking news, but I have always referred any inquiring reporter to the police or prosecutor. Keeping a low profile in these kinds of situations has served to save me from many potentially embarrassing moments.

Furthermore, we would be horribly naïve if we failed to recognize the true nature of the media.

I am reminded of the story of the frog and the scorpion. This old story tells of a scorpion who needs to cross the river. He asks the frog for a ride. The frog, initially wary of the scorpion, refuses. “How do I know you wont sting me?” the frog asks. The scorpion replies that it would make no sense for him to sting the frog because they would both drown. Satisfied with the scorpion’s answer, the frog ferries the venomous insect across the river, but the scorpion stings the frog in the back. The dying frog asks the scorpion why he wanted both of them to die. The scorpion replies, “I cannot help it. It is my nature.”

Talking freely to the reporter seems like a good idea to the naïve, frog-like medical examiner. He feels he is performing a public service by letting everyone know what is going on. Little does he realize that the story has already been pre-written in the mind of the reporter, and the reporter is simply looking for some sensational statements from him. Reporters like to introduce drama and conflict into a story. Frequently they depict investigative agencies arguing with one another. I realize not all stories are written like this, but reporters will frequently pit you against an antagonist in their story, allowing you to be seen in a less than favorable light. You may not know this at the outset, but it becomes woefully apparent that evening or the following day as you hear your sound bites on the evening news or read the edited version of the story in the newspaper. Further, the utterances, distorted by the media as they are, may come back to haunt you when a case goes to court. You may find yourself having to explain your utterances to a judge and jury.

You should carefully measure what you say to the media about breaking news. Express each phrase simply, carefully measuring each word, making sure to omit technical jargon. Respond only to questions that you are directly asked. Make sure to tell each media agency the same information so that no one can accuse you of allowing one agency to scoop another. Anticipate the future and the impact your hasty or carefully uttered words may have on it.

Say nothing unless you are absolutely certain of the truth of what you say. Keep in mind that you know very little at the beginning of an investigation, so say very little. If the investigation is a homicide investigation, I would simply say nothing other than to refer all reporters to the police and prosecutor.

On multiple occasions, I received requests from documentary filmmakers who wanted to enter the morgue and film what goes on. In this day of fictional television programs about crime scene investigators, there is tremendous interest in all forensic matters. Frequently, photojournalists ride along with police officers to document a case. Frequently, they want to enter the morgue with the detective to film the autopsy.

I carefully considered each request for this when I was a chief medical examiner. Frequently, I allowed it but only under very limited and restricted circumstances. I would not allow photography of any part of the dead body that would allow any person to identify that individual. I would not allow any graphic images. I would also restrict access to only certain areas that the supervising investigator could control. All of us would guard carefully anything we would say. I also required advance notice before any photojournalist would enter the building. We needed to be prepared, and I wanted each individual in my office to be clear on what he or she needed to do.

If society were a human body, I believe the morgue would be the “private parts.” These portions of anatomy are important but sensitive. They need to be covered discreetly, not wantonly exposed. The death of a loved one is a very personal and sensitive experience, and we need to do all we can to respect that. Members of society become outraged when its public servants deal with the dead in a less than discreet and reverent manner. Numerous news accounts over time attest to this.

Consequently, when I participated in the design of the medical examiner facility, I wanted it to be secure—not only for the evidence it contained and carefully guarded but also for the sensitive nature for the work we do. We allowed visitors for necessary business and educational purposes, but we did not allow access to those with sensational and prurient interests, macabre fascinations, or idle curiosities.

You should also maintain a low profile when it comes to your dealings with your superiors and with other agencies. The media is not a good place to argue or to air your differences with your superiors. It is also not a good idea to pit yourself against other agencies, even though the reporter may try to do this for you. I made it a point never to say one negative thing about anyone when I spoke to a reporter, even though others publicly and harshly criticized me. You would be wise to do the same. In the end, you will lose the argument if you have it in the media.

You should always do your best to maintain a low profile, but there may be occasions when you cannot. Sometimes, moral obligations may propel you into unwanted limelight. What do you do then?

You do what is right, no matter what it may cost you.

Sometimes, the temptation may be overwhelming to cover up, to overlook, to ignore, to make unwise and unjust choices in order to keep yourself out of trouble. In the short run, doing what is right may cost you dearly. It may even cost you your job. Still you must do what is right rather than what is expedient.

As medical examiners, we are obligated to tell the truth. A medical examiner without credibility is worth nothing! Telling or allowing a lie undermines your credibility not only to others but also to yourself. A job may be temporary, but you have to look in the mirror and hopefully like the person you see until the day you die. No amount of money can buy integrity or buy it back if you have lost it. You can only earn or maintain your integrity by the truthful and courageous choices you make daily. It takes years to develop integrity but it can be lost in an instant.

So if maintaining a low profile causes you to lose your integrity, than lose the low profile instead. Better to take a bullet while standing up than to slither around on your belly for the rest of your career.

1 Moritz AR. Classical mistakes in forensic pathology (American Journal of Clinical pathology, 1956). Am J Forensic Med Pathol 1981;2:299-308.