Mainstream press on Gosnell: adjust the framing

Yes, there’s more.

Abortionist Kermit Gosnell is on trial in Philadelphia for killing a female patient and using scissors to cut the spines of fetuses that were aborted alive. According to the grand jury report, he killed “hundreds” of living fetuses. It was his “standard business practice.” Mysteriously, Gosnell kept fetal feet in jars, perhaps as mementos.

I took that from The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication covering a hard-news story that, for some reason, the national media are curiously downplaying. Yes, the same national media that gave us non-stop, daily, histrionic, top-of-the-show coverage of such important news as the Komen Foundation’s decision to stop its minor funding of the country’s largest abortion provider (funded to the tune of $1 billion a year) and someone saying something mean to a birth-control activist, etc.

Each day of this trial reveals new horrors. The details are horrifying. But whether it’s the Newtown massacre or the massacre that took place at this abortion clinic, access to the news is important. Denying access to the news — as so many national media are doing in this case — is not good for civil society, for public discourse. Correct me if I’m wrong but, in general, if you are a news outlet you should report the news.

Over at HotAir, Ed Morrissey writes about whether one witness’ defense — that she was just following orders — is any better than other times that defense has been used. Then:

While we’re asking questions, let’s ask again why the crime-obsessed media hasn’t taken an interest in this case.  It has nearly everything that the media usually wants — horrific tales, serial killings, grotesque deliberation, even a villain who liked to make and keep trophies of his victims.  We even have living victims willing to go on camera to talk about their experiences with Gosnell. So why has no national media outlet taken advantage of this target-rich environment?

It’s a great question. Some have tried to defend it by noting that local media has covered the story. But a salacious “local” murder trial doesn’t even need to involve mass murder for the national media to usually devote untold resources to it.

We have more than the usual required number of incidents to get trend pieces and regular coverage of the larger issues, too. We had the Planned Parenthood official in Florida defending post-birth abortions such as the ones that Gosnell committed. We have another Planned Parenthood clinic being exposed for unhealthy conditions, like Gosnell’s. Pro-life (and at least one local) media covered five botched abortions there in a matter of weeks, whistleblowers who sounded the alarm about the conditions and the eventual shut-down of the clinic. We have had some legislatures responding to unhealthy abortion clinic conditions such as the ones being discussed in the Gosnell trial.

I mean, all of this isn’t anywhere near as big of a deal as a law school student being called a bad name, but it’s almost worth some coverage, no? Is it that this story so upends the traditional frameworks the media use to tell their stories? Reader Mark Baddeley has some thoughts:

I like Northcoast’s point. If the right to life march is not newsworthy because it happens “all the time”, then surely the prosecution of an abortion doctor for mass murder with a possible capital sentence *is* news. This is a singular event. When you add in how charged the American scene is over abortion this is the kind of story that would sell papers, and drive ratings up. I mean, the defunding of Planned Parenthood by Komen was, in the judgement of editors, a story of national importance that drove the story cycle for some time, and it was far less “if it bleeds it leads” than this story.

I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that the problem here is that this story cannot be framed the right way for the mainstream media. I don’t want to blame them entirely for this problem — their consumers prefer stories that are framed in a way that fit with how they already see the world anyway. But there has been a constant frame for decades of brave pro-abortion advocates and doctors fighting for women’s health against misogynist knuckle draggers who want to force women out of the workplace and into the kitchen and delivery room. There is simply no way that this story fits with the frame *at all*. And so there is no story. A story that can’t fit the pre-existing frames open for it can’t be communicated within the limitations inherent to the media at this point in time. On this story the conservative and Christian sites have a gift on a silver platter because the story fits entirely within their frame, and is what their punters already expect to see happen sooner or later.

I’m sure that the partisan cheerleading for the pro-abortion side is at work here, as was painfully evident with the Komen reporting debacle. If the editors wanted to tell this story they’d try ad overcome the frame problem. But I think that this is also a framing problem. Having framed all the stories on this issue to fit the pro-abortion side, there is no frame available to help communicate this one. And without that frame contemporary journalism finds it hard to function. Their consumers don’t pay them to force them to think.

Perhaps it’s worth reflecting on whether reporters and editors should question their preferred frames if those frames require hiding reality. But I thought of another frame that might be helpful for reporters not wishing to be the PR team for the abortion lobby.

A reporter tweeted out that “Looks like @nytimes has run 1 article this year on Gosnell, and @WSJ (incredibly) zero. @USATODAY has run 4.” One person responded to her that:

Media’s favorite conceit is that is gives a voice to the powerless and forces people to confront uncomfortable truths…

Well there you go! Go with that one. Make it be true, even! Give a voice to the powerless and force people to confront some uncomfortable truths.

Frame image via Shutterstock.

  • Paolo Romano

    I’d go so far as to say the media is not reporting this issue for fear of Planned Parenthood’s thugs and bullies and their tight connection to their abortion messiah and money man in the White House.

  • michael

    Well said, Mark. You have just provided more evidence, as if we needed it, that a culture’s capacity for thought is inversely related to the ubiquity of its journalism.

    And you have invited much more rigorous analysis of how the media ‘mediates’ and of the enormous power that goes along with that. I contend that we don’t understand this very well. I hope that GR will take you up on that. Posts like this are a start, but to get to the bottom of it more thinking needs to be done not just about journalistic bias and bad journalism but the inherent biases and limitations of journalistic method even in the case of good journalism.

    Plus I agree with Mollie. The complete absence of this story is remarkable.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The way the mainstream media seems to report (or not report, as here) in a solid herd fashion convinces many people, rightly or wrongly, that there is more to it than reporters and editors just having the same extremist attitude toward abortion. It smacks to some as if there is a lot of behind the scenes conniving on what will be the mainstream party line on this Gosnell trial and allied issues such as Planned Parenthood’s apparent contempt for the value of human life ( with 500 million dollars taxpayer money to help finance it).
    Can there be anything more barbaric and blood curdling than what is being done to newly born infants in the name of “abortion rights.” And yet what little coverage I have seen keeps calling new (accidentally) born infants: “fetuses.” They are not “fetuses”– They are infants, babies, newborns. And the media people responsible for not covering the story are, in my opinion, clearly complicit in one of the worst forms of murder: infanticide

    • Paul

      It’s disappointing to see the Weekly Standard use the term “fetus” rather than “baby”. I guess a premature baby is also a fetus to them. And the Weekly Standard is the “Conservative” paper? The Wall Street Journal hasn’t written a single article about Gosnell. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t surprise me if most of those writing for the Standard and, particularly, the Journal, are no more likely to be pro-life than those writing for the NYT or WaPo. Jobs at major publications are hard to come by so your typical journalist i.e. to the left of 95% of the population on most, if not all, issues, will gladly take a job at a publication that is considered conservative. I know the employees of Fox News contributed a lot more to Obama’s campaign than they did to McCain’s, although that included all of their employees, not just journalists. For those of us who aren’t liberal ideologues and, particularly for those of us who are pro-life, we are likely to have to accept the liberal worldviews of those in the press for the rest of our lives. Make that VERY likely. No wonder so many have given up on the MSM already. They aren’t masochists.

  • tmatt

    Well, the great (and liberal) David Shaw of the LA Times has already covered this.

    http://www.latimes.com/features/food/la-me-shaw01jul01,0,5601598.story

    David Shaw Times Staff Writer
    July 1, 1990

    When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

    “Her message was clear,” Okie recalled recently. “I felt that they were . . . (saying) ‘You’re hurting the cause’ . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line.”

    Okie says she was “shocked” by the “disquieting” assumption implicit in the complaint–that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

    But it’s not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employes at many major papers, has officially endorsed “freedom of choice in abortion decisions.”

  • Chris M

    Time to make a prediction:

    If Gosnell is found guilty, and receives the death penalty, the story will receive mainstream coverage.

    Targeting the “hypocrisy” of any pro-lifers who welcome the sentence.

  • Mattk

    Babies are the new Jews. The editors of the major news organizations are as guilty as Joseph Goebbels.

  • Jerry

    USA Today is part of the mainstream and they’re covering the story. But beyond that, I agree with the thesis here. The media is clearly ignoring this story.

    But there is a very surprising “coincidence”. Somehow it happened that GR, FOX, International Business Times, examiner.com, Washington Times and some others just happened to comment on this today. Why today? Is there anything new today?

    • mollie

      Well, many other conservative outlets noticed it yesterday and many others noticed it the day before and I’ve written about it in the past and various media critiquing sites have been commenting on it regularly.
      I sometimes like to wait and give media outlets a chance to rectify an oversight — and I’ve tried to be very patient on this story. But it’s getting just crazy. Each day there is some absolutely horrific new testimony — the kind of testimony that would be expected to lead the nightly news — and there’s just silence.
      So each day there’s more to write about — or to comment on the lack of regular media attention.

  • Ryan

    The framing part is key here. This story hits at a bed rock worldview for MSM, and when you hit at the bedrock of a worldview you are no longer able to ask “why” or question, but can only allow in what reinforces what is already believed.

    A story like this has the potential to raise national sentiments and questions about how we do sex, relationships, family planning, minority communities, and most of all a voiceless human having their spine cracked to death.

    • John Pack Lambert

      I wonder if part of the reason this is being ignored is because it plays into the “black and other minority genocide” issues with abortion. This sub-standard abortion clinic meant non-white women (not just children) dieing. It shows a total disregard for the well being of women. This is typically where the cry of “racism” comes, but to call the pro-abortion loby racist would play into the rhetoric of Herman Cain that it is a black genocide. That is the last thing that the media will ever do, admit that Herman Cain had a point and should not have been mocked mercilessly for claiming that abortion harms African-Americans and shows a disregard for their lives.

  • FW Ken

    It seems to me a vigilant (awake, anyway) media would now start looking for the other Gosnells. Abortion clinics are factories driven by profit. How many dead, maimed or sterile women are coming out of them? Inquiring minds want to know.

    • Margaret

      In the right hands, exposing the dark side of the abortion industry should be Pulitzer-worthy investigative reporting. Would that some talented journalist somewhere could be more attracted to the prestige of a huge story (or better yet, doing the right thing) than the deeply-ingrained desire to keep following the standard abortion story templates.

  • Martha

    William Saletan at Slate magazine has a very good, informative series about the politics of abortion, using the Gosnell case to start and recounting similar incidences in Florida.

    He seems pretty even-handed (although yes, he’s probably “pro-choice”) and he does have a good point about how both sides get so involved in pushing through their agendas that it ends up causing more harm than good.

    But the depressing conclusion is that the “abortion rights” lobby is so committed to the principle of abortion, that any kind of regulation or enforcement is seen as caving-in to the “anti-choicers” and so women are permitted to be victims all in the name of keeping abortion legal (the rare part has long gone out the window and the safe part seems to be following it).

    Personal note: I’ve finally junked my LiveJournal account due to one straw too many on this camel’s back, and that was due to another account-holder querying why LJ had run a month-long campaign of support for Planned Parenthood but refused to give publicity to any groups or single persons who wanted to host similar campaigns for pro-life causes. I supported that query. A staffer smacked us down that the reason was he and the majority of the staff supported PP and their work and the work of others like them and they presume the majority of their customer base do too, and that there just wouldn’t be the interest in promoting “anti-choice” types. That’s when I picked up my bed and walked.

    It’s not just in the media that there are entrenched attitudes and convictions.

    • Paul

      The LiveJournal incident is depressing but not surprising. I have to admit that before I really thought about the issue of abortion, I was mildly pro-abortion. I recall thinking the typical “Well, it’s the woman’s body so that’s her decision”. I believe I reached that decision after watching the typical slanted (though I didn’t think that at the time) news story about an abortion clinic and the seemingly bullying protestors outside the clinic. In short, my decision was reached almost devoid of any logical scrutiny. I do have a high regard for truth, though, and through reasoning alone, I arrived at what would be considered an extreme pro-life position by even some so-called pro-lifers. A human being at conception has the same rights as a human being outside of the womb. Unfortunately, the guy at LiveJournal, as well as the vast majority of others, don’t place much value on Truth. Their gut feeling is good enough for them. If you do try to logically make your case, particularly where passions are concerned, you have very little chance of making any headway at all. Truth comes in a distant second to Ego, which is controlled by emotion. The obfuscation used by academics who argue in favor of “reproductive rights” is evidence of how weak their case is. Euphemisms shouldn’t be needed if the truth is on your side.

    • Paul

      I just took a look at LiveJournal for the first time and am surprised you didn’t notice how liberal (and immature) the vibe is, at least after a cursory examination. As luck would have it, when I clicked on the political section, it led me to an article, slanted, of course, of abortion restrictions in various states. That is par for the course, I know, at most news sites. The only abortion news tends to be about restrictions on abortion “rights”. The nine comments made concerning the story were all pro-abortion and, shockingly, either ad hominem attacks of Republicans/Conservatives/Pro-lifers and/or illogical reasoning or factually inaccurate statements of why those restrictions are wrong. It would be pointless to try to debate any of the nine. It wouldn’t make much more sense to try to debate members of the press. Some would make more of an attempt to make their case through reason but underneath it all would be the same false premises.

  • John M.

    “Fetuses that were aborted alive”? Is that our new euphemism for the dreaded complication? How tortured must our language itself be to bear up under the weight of this barbarity?

    -John

    P.S. Chris M.: how about the hypocrisy of vegetarians who are pro-abortion? Gosnell is getting infinitely more due process than his victims, so he can tell his sob story to the judge.

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      That and Gosnell killed hundreds of “living fetuses.” Every abortion kills a living fetus – if the fetus wasn’t living, then it wasn’t an abortion, and the fact that it is living is why the abortion was sought. This is exactly what an abortion is. What they meant of course was hundreds of fetuses that were living outside of the womb when they were killed. But a fetus outside of the womb is no longer a fetus.

  • Nick

    I have to disagree with Mark’s quote. In fact, what’s interesting and confusing about this lack of coverage is that there IS a relatively easy pro-choice spin on this.

    The logic goes like this: “See, this is what happens when abortions are hard to get. We need more government assistance and fewer restrictions on abortions so that women don’t need resort to these kinds of clinics. If we make abortion illegal, all we’ll see is more and more of this kind of atrocity. We need to keep abortion safe and legal!”

    Again, this is a line of reasoning which is just awful, not only in its implications, but in its faulty presuppositions. It’s lazy rhetoric which simply begs the question. But, it speaks to an American populace that likes to have its thinking done for it by somebody else and would rather not deal with messy issues. In short, I really have no idea why this isn’t being covered.

    • Paul

      Some are already taking the approach you mentioned. And I’m sure that will be the approach taken by the MSM should they ever cover this. I think many of them are terrified that the story, itself, is so horrific that it will force many to question abortion, in general, no matter how they try to frame it.

    • Mark Baddeley

      I think my point isn’t that there isn’t a possible pro-choice spin, but that there isn’t a pre-existing frame for the story. Even worse it cuts against the way these stories have been framed for decades.

      You’re right that it is potentially possible to create a spin to safely interpret the story for people in favour of abortion, but my point was that the story itself doesn’t fit the frames used in journalism the last few decades.

      In fact, as Paul suggests, the story itself is likely to damage that frame the more people come to experience the details of it. It will be hard to see all abortion doctors and pro-abortion advocates as pro-women and all anti-abortion people as anti-women in light of this story.

      It *further* runs the risk of crystalizing people who considered abortion to be morally okay to see it as morally negative, and those who saw it as morally negative but wanted it to be legal to shift to wanting it to be more restricted if not banned in most (or even all) circumstances.

      The spin might be able to defuse that second effect, but it could have the effect of making the spinners look like they are trying to justify the unjustifiable and so are ideologically driven people out of touch with reality. When someone intuitively feels the evil in their gut, the more sophisticated the arguments to defuse the story, the more they raise questions over the moral standing of the spinner. The details of this story are gripping and moving even in a society somewhat desensitized by hyper-violence. Spinning is tricky in those situations as the emotions are already engaged and people come to their moral stance more immediately and not simply through rational argument.

      But my bigger point is not that this can’t be spun, but that it has no frame already existing to help tell it, and a frame that would tell it would likely feel like a terrible crunch of gears in the heads of most consumers of the media for the last few decades. It seems journalism really struggles in that situation. When you add in that they don’t want to tell a story that will be so hard to tell without damaging the anti-abortion cause (and almost definitely can’t be told to *help* the pro-abortion cause) it is going to be an uphill battle the whole way to see this reported well.

      • Mark Baddeley

        I really don’t spell and grammar and syntax check my comments enough.

        Third last line “anti-abortion cause” should read “pro-abortion” cause.

        Usually my commenting foibles just make me look illiterate. But that one managed to invert the meaning.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    In terms of the framing of the story, I agree that the MSM is having a difficult time reporting on the crimes without making abortion itself look bad. After all, a successful in utero abortion performed at the same point of gestation as Gosnell’s actions is morally no different than what Gosnell did. Peter Singer knows this and has advocated infanticide because of it, but a lot of people would see it the other way. And there is no way to frame it in a safely pro-abortion way.

    Also, abortion is really about the right of the physician to perform the procedure — for a fee — with legal protection. (While many states penalized the women, they generally penalized the physicians more heavily, and other states penalized only the physicians.) This complicates the ability to frame this story in a pro-abortion way.

    • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

      I agree. What the man did was discover he was a bad abortionist — he did a bad job (ie, damaged the woman) too many times. It was easier to induce the woman, drug her so she didn’t know what was happening, and kill the baby after it was born. SAME THING, different order — and fewer complications with the late-term women who came to him. And if he saw that, then anyone looking at the situation (reporter, viewer) would see it too.

  • CarlH

    It’s already been noted that USA Today has been covering the Gosnell trial story. Interestingly enough, they also have an Op-Ed piece by Kirstin Powers about the lack of media coverage, withe subhead: We’ve forgotten what belongs on Page One I don’t know enough to tell whether this was also in yesterday’s print edition.

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  • Mark Baddeley

    Glad you (and others) found that comment potentially insightful, Mollie. I find it difficult to believe that this is *purely* a case of journalists self-consciously closing ranks around their commitment to promoting the inherent goodness and value of legally permissible abortion. I’m sure that that is in the mix, but I think there answer is probably complex, and like a lot of widespread institutionalized problems, most likely arises from some systemic weaknesses in the institution of journalism.


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