Should media cover — or cover up — abortion trial?

I would love to critique the coverage of the trial of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion doctor whose mass murder trial is going on right now in Philadelphia.

The only problem is that there is a curious lack of media coverage.

The Daily Mail had a story this weekend headlined “‘Fetuses and blood all over the place’: Medic’s graphic account of ‘be-heading live babies’ at abortion ‘House of Horrors’ in Philadelphia” but none of the big three networks have even mentioned the trial once.

That Daily Mail piece is just one update on one recent witness in the trial, which has been going on for three weeks with similar horrific updates you can read about — in the pro-life and Christian and conservative press, but not in the national mainstream press — every day. An abortion shop of horrors is undoubtedly of interest to Christian audiences and pro-life audiences and conservative audiences. But is it not also of interest to general audiences? Why wouldn’t it be?

It is very difficult to critique coverage of a topic when the media isn’t covering it so much as inexplicably covering it up.

David Freddoso of the Washington Examiner couldn’t help but notice the media silence:

You might not know it, but there’s a mass murder trial going on in Philadelphia. There has been plenty of courtroom drama, and the death penalty remains a possibility.

The media are seldom shy about such sensational affairs, but they have been with one. Perhaps it’s because the accused mass murderer is an abortion doctor, who along with his medically untrained staff is accused of killing a female patient and several babies who had already been born, alive and breathing.

Doctor Kermit Gosnell’s preferred method of killing these latter, according to witnesses, was to sever their spinal cords. Upon his arrest in January 2011, his urine-scented and blood-soaked clinic was deemed a “house of horrors.” (I will spare readers further details, which are far worse.)

Freddoso compares the media silence on this topic with the wall-to-wall coverage of another horrific incident: the Sandy Hook massacre. Freddoso notes that “Gosnell’s trial is to abortion what Sandy Hook is to gun ownership”:

Both are emotional cases with horrific details that cry out for public policy debates. And in each case, the debate pits public safety against something widely considered a constitutional right.

The two cases are different in that Sandy Hook received wall-to-wall coverage and thus facilitated a national conversation about mental health and gun control — a debate whose outcome is yet to be determined.

Not so with the Gosnell trial, which has been completely blacked out by the media. The American people are now like a jury, shielded from relevant information because judges (read: editors) decided it might prejudice their views — in this case, against lightly regulated abortionists.

Freddoso argues that coverage of Sandy Hook is “appropriately heavy” and “served a public purpose.” He notes some of the highlights and lowlights of the coverage, too. But:

In stark contrast, television coverage of Gosnell’s trial has been “hard to find,” as the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan put it very charitably last Sunday on “Meet the Press.”

In fact, not counting Noonan’s allusion, Gosnell’s case has not been mentioned even once on any of the three major networks in the last month (his trial began March 18).

It has received only seven mentions on cable television since it began, one on CNN and six on Fox News. In print, Gosnell’s case has been largely ignored outside of local media outlets in Pennsylvania and Delaware.

It’s not as though there isn’t an obvious connection between the Gosnell case and public policy. Legislators in some states (including Pennsylvania and now Alabama) have acted since Gosnell’s arrest to crack down on the next abortion quack.

The media have collectively and perhaps deliberately failed to draw the obvious connection between the two stories.

When a Planned Parenthood official testified in Florida in favor of a right to post-birth abortion, I thought certainly we’d see some pieces drawing a connection to the Gosnell trial.

Instead, crickets.

I just learned that lobbyist was formerly a lobbyist for Catholic Charities. I didn’t learn that in the mainstream press, but a Catholic site.

Freddoso has much more, but notes toward the end that “The liberal editors who are keeping Kermit Gosnell’s case off the air should ask themselves whether they aren’t taking sides in the culture war.”

I can’t really understand the grounds for saying this trial (and similar situations) isn’t newsworthy, apart from strict devotion to the doctrine of abortion on demand.

Image of abortion activist giving orders to colleagues in the press via Shutterstock.

  • Bob Smietana

    The Philadelphia Inquirer is covering the trial. There is a story with this headline “Ex Gosnell employee recounts horrors of abortion process” on their site right now.

    http://www.philly.com/philly/news/breaking/20130408_Ex_Gosnell_employee_recounts_horrors_of_abortion_process.html

    • mollie

      Sure. And some major outlets noted the arrest a few years ago and the first day of the trial this year.
      But we all see that other mass killings aren’t treated as local news. Journalists don’t typically fail to imagine how a story as dramatic and shocking as this one might be ripe for follow-up or extensive coverage.

    • Martha

      Bob, the inquest into the death of Savita Halappanavar started today in Galway. How many American papers will carry something about this event in another country, versus something about the Gosnell trial?

      If anyone can fill me in about this, I’ll be very interested to see how the coverage stacks up.

  • tmatt

    BOB:

    That would fall into the LOCAL MEDIA reference in MZ’s post, right?

  • northcoast

    Shouldn’t it be newsworthy because abortion providers are seldom prosecuted?

  • Taylor

    I think the comparison to the gun lobby is very apt. In both cases you see groups who have become so obsessed with what they see as THE fundamental right that increasingly any attempt at regulation or modest restriction is seen as an impending apocalypse. The difference, sadly, is that the NRA is just one of many sides on the gun debate in the media, while Planed Parenthood et al pretty much run the newsrooms on this issue.

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

    HuffingtonPost is not giving the play-by-play, but they have a number of relatively recent stories. Not a fan of HP, and it’s not strictly a news outlet, but it’s worth noting they have some coverage at least. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/kermit-gosnell

    But a Google search does not turn up a single major national news outlet with a story on the first page. Except ABC news, with a story from TWO YEARS AGO (January 2011). http://abcnews.go.com/US/alleged-victim-calls-philadelphia-abortion-doctor-kermit-gosnell/story?id=12731387#.UWMdk44Zfdk

    Forbes, however, has an article also lamenting this dearth of coverage. http://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2013/04/05/it-is-disturbing-that-mike-rice-gets-more-coverage-than-kermit-gosnell-and-kathy-boudin/ A pushy basketball coach vs a mass murderer – naturally people want to hear more about the coach.

  • chuck

    Well it is true that it may be the Sandy Hook of abortion in that Sandy Hook is not going make any real change in gun ownership and this trial will have no impact on abortion.

  • John M.

    I saw a Savita Halappanavar story on the mobile front page of CNN.com this morning.

    -John

  • Mark Baddeley

    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.

  • Steve Bauer

    Was it not two or three weeks ago that I saw reports for two or three days on the broadcast news on the discovery of a poorly run dentist’s office (in Texas, was it not?) with rusty instruments and other unsanitary conditions in which patients “may have been” exposed to HIV and other diseases. But no one had actually died (or even actually gotten sick).

  • northcoast
  • Jay

    I can’t really understand the grounds for saying this trial (and similar situations) isn’t newsworthy, apart from strict devotion to the doctrine of abortion on demand.

    So, in other words, you do understand the reason why they’re not covering it, and you’re just lamenting the transparent ideological bias and that no one seems to care.

  • FW Ken

    But people do care. They may not talk or blog about, but the bleeding circulation rates and viewer levels say “I care” enough to go looking for alternative viewpoints on what constitutes news and how it should be covered.

  • Jay2

    The other Jay here that comments :) I go back to the idea of how much public interest is there in the news story and trying to write stories that appeal to the masses. The story has been published within various venues. How much interest is there from the general public? Sorry, but the people that comment on this blog represent a significant minority of the public… I’m not sure, but I’m thinking one of the reasons you might be seeing a lack of coverage might be a lack of interest by many individuals within the general population. Is it gruesome, you bet it is, but if people aren’t clicking on the link to open up the page to read the news story, I think you’re going to find newsrooms staying away from the subject. Look across the globe at some of the gruesome atrocities going on all around us and how little coverage there is. What seems to get most news rooms to jump? The altruistic virtue of reporting about what people should know or reporting about what’s going to make people read your article (ie, get you money and recognition?). Maybe I’m a little bit too cynical, but it seems to me quite a few people are more interested in what Lady Gaga is going to be wearing next than in baby’s being slaughtered.

  • Bro AJK
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  • Eric

    The way the media cover some trials (and other events) extensively and not others is baffling at times, and this is one of them. This case is far more interesting than the Jodi Arias trial, which has received far more attention than it deserves.

    I’m not convinced that the reason for the noncoverage is because of its political implications. If anything, a pro-choicer might argue that wider availability of first-trimester abortions and/or regular medical care for low-income women might have prevented what happened here. This trial really doesn’t have much to do with “normal” abortions, which usually occur long before viability.

    I can’t help but wonder how much the lack of coverage is due to simple racism. The woman allegedly murdered was a dark-skinned refugee who didn’t match the American ideal of beauty — had she been a svelte, attractive college-age blonde, would we see her picture every time we turn on the TV? The doctor’s patients, and thus I assume the dead babies, were mostly nonwhite as well. I can’t imagine that if the clinic had been located in wealthy suburbs that Gosnell wouldn’t be a household name by now.

    • Txcon

      @Eric-

      Sadly I think this is true — it’s missing white girl syndrome. There certainly is aslo a media bias but it’s more blindness than bias. Most media people probably cannot even conceive that others view this issue differently.

    • Chip

      Exactly. This story, which I agree should be national news, gives just as much support to the pro-choice story about abortion as it does to the pro-life story. If pro-choice politics were driving the coverage decisions, then there would be coverage emphasizing the result of abortions being hidden and stigmatized instead of treated like other medical procedures. Fear of this very scenario is the reason many who are in the mushy middle on abortion don’t want to ban abortions.

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  • Hilda Whitby

    [The only problem is that there is a curious lack of media coverage.]

    Then how come I knew exactly what this article was about when I saw the headline?

    There’s been tons of coverage. You just want it top story, 24/7.

    • trueWorldview

      Not even close to the truth…

      Your personal experience cannot be generalized and drawn out as conclusive evidence for any presence of an entire universe of media articles.

      An easy Lexis search can provide simple objective numbers regarding media coverage.

  • trueWorldview

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