Is media bias tainting the Gosnell story?

Veteran journo Paul Moses ponders that question over at Commonweal’s blog: 

There is a lively debate over whether major national news organizations have ignored or downplayed the trial of a Philadelphia abortion doctor who is charged with murder in the deaths of seven babies allegedly born alive and one mother…With the sensational charges made by both sides, the intense emotions (many of the witnesses are dissolving into tears), the high stakes and the important social issues being raised, the Gosnell trial is clearly a national story. It has received that treatment from the largest U.S. news organization, the Associated Press, which has covered the trial daily and moved lengthy articles not only to regional clients but on the national wire as well. So daily, national coverage is available to those who want it. The New York Times, having done an article in 2011 on how Gosnell’s squalid clinic had escaped state oversight, ran a story on the trial’s opening arguments. (To review daily coverage of the trial, check the Philadelphia Inquirer.)

But there are some major news organizations, especially the television networks, showing no interest in the trial. Is that because of bias? Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple questioned some of the national outlets, including his own. That led Martin Baron, the editor of the Post, to respond: “We believe the story is deserving of coverage by our own staff, and we intend to send a reporter for the resumption of the trial next week. In retrospect, we should have sent a reporter sooner.”

Yes, the Gosnell trial is news. National news, available from the AP wire.

But I would expect to see few news organizations from outside the region staff the trial on a daily basis. The Gosnell trial was projected to last six to eight weeks. It’s rare for a trial to receive day-to-day national coverage nowadays. It’s expensive, especially for the TV networks, which have to dispatch a crew for an extended period of time. (It’s much easier to assail the media for not doing the coverage than it is to report on a two-month trial yourself.)

Here’s the thing: the trial is unfolding in Philadelphia, not Kalamazoo.  Philly’s about a 90-minute drive from Manhattan.  Also, given the realities of the news business today, most TV networks rely heavily on contributions from local affiliates.  While I’m not a viewer of the Philadelphia market, I imagine most of the TV stations there are watching this story closely.  (Indeed, the NBC affiliate has a special web page devoted to the trial)  Using feeds/contributions from affiliates would cost the networks almost nothing and dramatically raise the profile of a story that deserves more attention.

It’s a huge story. And a sensational one, chock full of lurid details and shocking lapses in judgment.  After all, when was the last time a doctor in the United States faced multiple charges of infanticide—and faced, potentially, the death penalty?

I’m not sure if bias is involved—conscious or unconscious—but as I mentioned here, there’s no good reason not to be covering it.

Meantime, Elizabeth Scalia notes that some have been watching and writing about this story for years.


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