Media Coverage of Michael Schumacher's Accident: Too Intrusive and Speculative?

Matthew WalthertFeatured ColumnistJanuary 22, 2014

Press conference with the medical team treating Schumacher.
Press conference with the medical team treating Schumacher.Laurent Cipriani/Associated Press

Nearly four weeks ago, Michael Schumacher was placed in a medically-induced coma after a ski accident in the French Alps. Since the December 29, 2013 accident, friends, family, rivals and fans have expressed their support for the seven-time Formula One world champion. 

Meanwhile, following Schumacher's hospitalisation in Grenoble, the global media descended on the French city to feed the public's insatiable desire for updates on the German's condition. In the absence of actual updates from Schumacher's medical team or anyone from his inner circle, some media outlets have served up an unhealthy and unhelpful stream of speculative pieces.

Overall, the reporting has covered a broad spectrum, from reserved to ridiculously intrusive.

At one end is the journalist from an unnamed French publication who dressed as a priest in an attempt to gain access to Schumacher's hospital room.

At the other end is Gary Hartstein, a physician who previously worked in F1 with the highly respected Dr. Sid Watkins. On his blog, A Former F1 Doc Writes, Dr. Hartstein has been providing experienced commentary and explanations of the official reports from Grenoble. He has also been answering a constant stream of questions on his Twitter feed: @former_f1doc.

Dr. Hartstein is a must-read for anyone without advanced medical knowledge seeking to understand the reality of what is happening to Schumacher.

In between these two extremes, there are plenty of stories that have veered too far into speculative territory.

For example, a headline for a recent story in the Daily Mirror reads, "Hopes fade for Michael Schumacher's recovery amid fears he may be 'in vegetative state after four-week coma.'" And the source linked to for this apparent update? Not one of the former world champion's doctors, but another Mirror story from the same day—this one written by a neurosurgeon—titled, "It is too early to diagnose Michael Schumacher as being in a permanent vegetative state."

(The first Mirror story also links to a story from an Austrian site that does not appear to quote anyone for its speculative piece, neurosurgeon or otherwise.)


The simple fact is, until Schumacher comes out of his coma, there is no way to know what type of permanent damage may have been done to his brain. Even the articles that are quoting neurologists or other medical specialists are only giving their best guesses.

But those guesses keep coming.

Last week, The Times (via The Independent, paywall-free) quoted Dr. Richard Greenwood, an "acute brain injury specialist," saying that:

If Schumacher survives, he will not be Schumacher.

He will be [Joe] Bloggs. His rehabilitation will only be effective if he comes to terms with being Bloggs.

That is a very, very hard process to take people through. They need to come to terms with their limitations — the fact they have changed.

While that is certainly a possibility, it is only one of many potential outcomes. If asked, any doctor in the world could tell you how serious brain injuries can be, but right now even the doctors treating Schumacher directly cannot tell the extent of his injuries.

Still, the Daily Mail, quoting German publications, published an article titled, "Fears grow that Schumacher could be in a coma for the rest of his life." The speculation is of the same nature as in the other stories, despite the fact that one of the doctors in the article is quoted as saying, "Predictions about how long a person might be in a coma or potential complications are seldom reliable."

Other speculation has centred on the exact circumstances of Schumacher's fall. Shortly after the accident, the German paper Bild (via, though, to be fair, many outlets reported this) stated that Schumacher had been injured while trying to assist a friend's daughter. Following an investigation, that story was discredited:

In the meantime, Corinna Schumacher, Michael's wife, has pleaded with the media, saying, "It is important to me that you leave the doctors and the hospital so that they can work in peace. I ask you to trust their statements and leave the clinic. Please leave our family in peace.”

Corinna Schumacher arriving at the hospital in Grenoble.
Corinna Schumacher arriving at the hospital in Grenoble.Thibault Camus/Associated Press

Unfortunately for Schumacher's family, that is unlikely, at least until a definitive statement regarding his condition is made by his doctors. While we wait, all we can do is hope and pray for the best and ignore the ongoing conjecture. 

Follow Matthew Walthert on Twitter @MatthewWalthert.