Journalism and the first few minutes after childbirth

There is nothing new about journalists arguing about the loaded language that surrounds our public debates about abortion.

For starters, there is the whole “pro-choice” vs. “anti-abortion” thing and all of the years in which editors in so many mainstream newsrooms granted one side of the debate it’s positive, vague, self-chosen label while slapping a label on the other side that was, for many, too negative and too narrow. Most of all, only one side of the debate had to wrestle with the ugly word “abortion.” Who can oppose “choice,” the ultimate buzz word of the American Way of Life?

I have also heard my share of newsroom debates about the word “fetus.” For example, in a news story about a pregnant woman, some journalists argued that it was best to avoid direct quotes in which the mother referred to her “baby” if, in the next paragraph, the reporter would be using the newsroom-approved term “fetus.” Didn’t that clash look awkward? Perhaps it would be best to paraphrase the mother to remove that tricky language?

Obviously, in the eyes of some journalists, it was always better to paraphrase all of the quotes from those religious nuts who kept inserting the words “unborn child” or “unborn children” into their soundbites.

Everyone knows that an “unborn child” is actually a “fetus.” After all, the dictionary says:

fe·tus … pl. fe·tus·es

… 2. In humans, the unborn young from the end of the eighth week after conception to the moment of birth, as distinguished from the earlier embryo.

However, if this is the case, what in the world is going on in the top paragraphs of the following story in USA Today?

PHILADELPHIA – One clinic worker testified that she saw aborted fetuses moving, breathing and, once, “screeching.” Another described a 2-foot-long fetus that “didn’t have eyes or a mouth, but it was like … making this noise. … It sounded like a little alien.”

A third witness recalled how, as ordered, she used surgical scissors to snip the spine of an aborted fetus she’d found in a toilet, its arm still moving. “I did it once, and I didn’t do it again,” she said. “… It gave me the creeps.”

The creeps are an occupational hazard for jurors in the murder trial of Kermit Gosnell, accused of running a clinic where seven babies were allegedly killed after botched abortions and an adult patient was given a fatal overdose of Demerol.

Now, isn’t the whole point of this aspect of the Gosnell trial — as opposed to many other hellish issues being raised in that courtroom — that associates of the abortionist have testified that, when performing late-term abortions with viable fetuses, it was his practice to administer drugs that induced labor, to deliver the children and then, after the births, to use the “snip” technique to kill them?

So the whole point is that the viable child was outside the mother’s body — past the moment of birth. Has anyone disputed that this happened in some cases, in a number of cases that needs to be determined?

If that is the case, why are some journalists using “fetus” language to describe the newborns that are being “snipped”?

Perhaps this new and, for me, bizarre journalistic debate has something to do with this other passage drawn from that USA Today piece:

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Master of my domain

… (T)he best persuaded of himself, so cramm’d, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.

Twelfth Night, 2.3.150-152 (1623)

The counterrevolution has begun.

The press is pushing back against its critics over the Kermit Gosnell affair. Stung by the criticisms and the hypocrisies detailed by Mollie Hemingway on this website, Kirsten Powers at USA Today and other outlets, some have begun reporting on the murder trial of the Philadelphia abortionist. Other outlets in their op-ed sections have defended their non-coverage or sought to deflect criticisms – – the New York Times‘ Tiller editorial is classic sleight-of-hand, substituting one story for another. “Nothing here to see folks. Move along.”

A few have embarked upon the high road. Writing in Religion Dispatches Diane Winston argues in “The Myth of News Media as Secularist Conspiracy” there has never been a golden era when reporters

provided smart, in-depth, contextualized coverage of religious leaders, issues, ideas, and communities.

In support of this contention, the article offers historical examples purporting to show the press has always done a poor job — missing stories, printing pablum in place of news or voicing prejudice such as H.L. Menken’s critique of Fundamentalism in his account of the Scope’s “monkey” trial or the “anti-Hindu coverage that ran through Western newspapers in the 1910s and 1920s.” The crux of her argument is that the problem is not a lack of:

trained religion reporters, but rather Americans’ widespread ignorance about religion. Religion is absent from many high school curricula and university classrooms, and many of us barely know the religious history of our own country much less the role of religion worldwide.

But her argument then pivots, stating:

Yet, I’m not convinced that improving the American educational system is really at the heart of Cannon’s plaint about religion coverage and his subsequent post on Kermit Gosnell.

Making more Americans aware of religion and historical incidents like an anti-Hindu press — a history of which I was not aware — would not have mattered in the Gosnell story as:

The Gosnell story is not a religion story, it’s a crime story. People with religious convictions may read their passions into it, but Gosnell did not seem to be motivated one way or the other by a faith commitment. Yet cultural religionists imply that the absence of religious commitment in the nation’s newsrooms—and consequent acceptance of baby-killing, oops abortion, is among the reasons that the Gosnell story was overlooked.

The notion that the news media is a secularist cabal ignoring stories that challenge its shibboleths is wrongheaded.

I do not agree. There is just a hint of Coriolanus going before the plebs here. That large sections of the media believe an abortionist charged with multiple counts of murder is a crime story without significant religious or moral overtones speaks to the failings and biases of the press, not readers. (One need only look to the loss of market share and trust the mainstream media have experienced to know that all is not well — or the studies and monographs on the triumph of ideology over reporting in major American newspapers.)Nor does she show a logical connection between her observations about ignorance of the audience and the silence about Gosnell.

Criticisms voiced by GetReligion have nothing to do with the private conscience of reporters who write about religion but about their ignorance of the topics they are covering coupled with a self-satisfied, complacent, high opinion of their own importance and disdain for views that conflict with their own. Large sections of the American press are like Mr. Podsnap who “stood very high in Mr. Podsnap’s opinion,” — they see religion reporting through the lens of anthropology and institutions, not through the culture and belief of people.

And it is this failure of intelligence, relevance and imagination that lies behind the Gosnell fracas. The personal views of reporters are irrelevant — it is their professional competence at issue.

Let me offer an example of good religion journalism to illustrate my argument of ideology free competent reporting. In a front page story Warsaw’s Gazeta Wyborcza last week reported on a paper released by the Polish Bishops’ Conference (Konferencja Episkopatu Polski) objecting to in vitro fertilization, abortion, euthanasia, and contraception, arguing they were a threat to humanity.

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Vote! Which is the worst Gosnell lede?

A few positive thoughts before we look at coverage of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s trial.

(1) I can not begin to thank you for all the kind words and support you’ve sent my way, publicly and privately, during this time. It is appreciated and it helps. Yes, I took some heat, which is to be expected. But the kind words of support, ranging from embarrassingly effusive to constructive advice, were wonderful to receive. A thousand thank yous.

(2) I joked at some point that one bright thing to come out of this craziness is that at least now my family understands what a media critic does.

(3) While this expose of Gosnell disparities did lay bare what a huge problem we have with how the media handle a wide variety of issues in this country, I want people to know that I heard from a great many newswriters, producers and editors throughout major national media as well as many local and regional outlets. The Gosnell brouhaha enabled some helpful conversations about the struggles these fair and honorable journalists have in newsrooms throughout the country. Some people merely thanked me for bringing the issue to light. Others told stories of how they have to fight for better coverage of various topics.

So here is something to remember: If you’re despairing about journalism in general, keep in mind that many journalists throughout the country are worried about the diminishing credibility of their industry, as a whole.

Yes, I know some news folks still think that denying the problem is the way to go. Such defensiveness only further harms credibility. The first step to addressing a problem is, well, admitting that you have a problem.

Anyway, a reporter sent me a link to a recent Gosnell story and asked if it didn’t contain the worst lede in the history of the world:

Say what you will about abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, the man was something of a naturalist.

Yikes! And it goes on like that, sort of a charming and fluffy feature about Gosnell’s love of plants and animals in a place where he is accused of butchering untold humans. It is a tone-deaf lede but probably suffers more from bad timing in this media climate. It ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer and comes from a reporter who actually has been covering the trial. So forgive me if I think other journalists need more criticism. When you’re covering a weeks-long trial, you look for new and interesting angles. That’s how I view this fluffy feature on the man who may be one of history’s greatest serial killers.

A different journalist pointed out another lede on this story that may be even worse. It comes from the New York Times piece headlined “Online Furor Draws Press to Abortion Doctor’s Trial” (and mentions my work):

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Abortion blindness in the New York Times

Three cheers for my Get Religion colleague Mollie Hemingway! She has done a fantastic job this week pointing out the professional failures of the national press coverage of the Kermit Gosnell trial in Philadelphia. The self-censorship of the New York Times on this issue is of Walter Duranty-like proportions.

But the Gosnell case is not an isolated incident when it comes to questionable abortion reporting — they have form. There is a blindness in the Times coverage of abortion — they see only what they want to see. Or, there is a sleight of hand at work here — like the three card monte dealer they promise you a fair game as the cards pass before your eyes — but the hand always comes out in favor of the dealer — and in this game the rightness of abortion always comes up aces.

Take the Irish abortion controversy that dominated the media for a few weeks after the election. Last November/December the Times ran six stories on the death of Savita Halappanavar.  The lede of its first report set the tone of its subsequent coverage:

The death of a woman who was reportedly denied a potentially lifesaving abortion even while she was having a miscarriage has revived debate over Ireland’s almost total ban on abortions.

The stories that followed focused on Ireland’s restrictive abortion laws — and upon claims that an abortion was not performed when the life of the mother was in danger because of Ireland’s Catholic culture.

Dr. Halappanavar contracted a bacterial blood infection, septicemia, and died Oct. 28, a week after she was admitted to Galway University Hospital with severe back pains. She was 17 weeks pregnant but having a miscarriage and was told that the fetus — a girl — would not survive. Her husband said she asked several times for an abortion but was informed that under Irish law it would be illegal while there was a fetal heartbeat, because “this is a Catholic country.”

The coroners inquest this past week in Ireland has seen blow by blow reports in the Irish and British press — with some papers publishing updates after each session. The Times returned to the story on 11 April 2013 with an article that backed the editorial line taken last year.

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Politico and Atlantic.com’s turn to explain Gosnell blackout

Earlier I shared what happened when I asked an AP reporter and a Washington Post reporter about their personal Gosnell blackouts.

It was so illuminating that I decided to check out a few other media outlets. I headed over to Politico. Since Washington Post reporter Sarah Kliff tried to justify her lack of coverage of the Gosnell trial by calling it a local crime story, I thought I’d add other local stories into my search. Thanks for the idea! So here’s what I found out. Politico‘s search engine pops out 165 results on Trayvon Martin (local crime story in Florida), 94 stories on Komen, 233 on Sandra Fluke and 866 on Todd Akin.

Guess how many stories Politico has published on Gosnell.

Did you guess zero? You win!

I’d love to ask the reporters in question about the shocking disparity but I noticed that the reporters who wrote some of the histrionic Komen coverage aren’t even around any more. Politico is known for its turnover. So I should probably ask editors. Once I figure out who I should talk to (I’m also trying to find Kliff’s editor since she has revealed some problems with her ability to cover this issue) and will let you know how it goes.

Which brings us to my last anecdote. I follow the prolific tweeter Garance Franke-Ruta from Atlantic.com. Her twitter bio says “Senior editor, @TheAtlantic. Your early warning system. Politics, media, breaking.” I know she loved loved loved to tweet about Fluke and Akin and Komen and all that. Couldn’t get enough of it. But I hadn’t seen anything on Gosnell from her. I plugged it into the Alantic.com’s search engine and there was a story about Gosnell! I clicked on it. It wasn’t a story so much as a very brief mention in a lengthy roundup of the day’s news. Back in March.

And that was it. Atlantic.com hadn’t covered Gosnell at all. But did they cover Trayvon Martin? (247 hits) What about Komen? (97) Fluke? (131) Should I ask about Akin? (296). So I asked her about it.

Here’s what she said (before deleting it later):

Hi Mollie. I have not had a blackout on him; I picked up the story in March and expect to do so again at some point.

See if you can find her coverage of Gosnell here. It’s a brief snippet of a New York Times story on Gosnell from the start the trial. It runs 155 words. And the first sentence is wrong (newborn babies aren’t fetuses). But whatever. I think we all must agree with her point. She briefly mentioned Gosnell in a link round-up in March. What more do you people want?

I suggested that a brief mention in a link-fest wasn’t quite on the same par as the top 8 hits (out of, remember, 97) on Komen. Check out these headlines:

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We need answers on Gosnell coverage

We’ve had a couple posts on the curious downplaying by the national media of the abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s mass murder trial going on right now in Philadelphia. We’ve noted, among other things, that USA Today is one of the few outlets to have mentioned the story more than once.

Well, today that national newspaper also published an absolutely devastating column — repeat, “column” — by Kirsten Powers. You should read “We’ve forgotten what belongs on Page One” — unless you are trying to remain in your bubble of epistemic closure at all costs:

Infant beheadings. Severed baby feet in jars. A child screaming after it was delivered alive during an abortion procedure. Haven’t heard about these sickening accusations?

It’s not your fault.

Powers lays out some of the details of the case and why they matter for a free society. She ends:

The deafening silence of too much of the media, once a force for justice in America, is a disgrace.

Now, Powers is just one of the latest critics to ask what in the h-e-double-hockey-sticks is going on with this insane lack of national media attention on this trial.

I think many of us are going to continue asking. Just by way of example, I noticed that the Associated Press’ national social issues reporter David Crary hasn’t mentioned the Gosnell trial. Or, at least, I could find no mention of it going back a month or so on his Twitter feed (I recognize the technology here is imperfect so perhaps I missed his stories or his publicizing of colleagues’ stories). So I asked him why.

.@CraryAP: Any reason you’re not tweeting out updates to AP coverage of abortionist Gosnell’s mass murder trial?

I explained to others on Twitter:

.@craryAP is AP “national social issues” reporter. He tweets out local coverage and covers national angles on social issues stories.

Go back a month+ in @craryAP’s twitter feed and there are 0 tweets regarding abortionist Gosnell’s mass murder trial. Why?

.@craryap is prolific tweeter of “social issue” AP stories. But he’s been silent on Gosnell. Is it lack of AP coverage? Or why the blackout?

He hasn’t responded yet, and I’ll be sure to share his explanation when he does.

You can see his Twitter feed here. His favorite stories deal with homosexuality but he also gives some love to abortion-related stories. The most recent one was something about Ireland resident Savita Halappanavar, whose death reporters and other pro-choice activists (if not medical examiners) link to a denial of abortion — don’t confuse that story with the woman who died after a late-term abortion in Maryland recently, a story that also was downplayed and blamed on, by the Washington Post, “childbirth.” Really.

Anyway, perhaps he’ll get around to linking to coverage of one of the most salacious mass-murder trials our country has ever seen.

But this isn’t just about David Crary of the Associated Press. This is about quite a few reporters. And so I have a few other questions, which I posted on Twitter. I haven’t had any of the targeted reporters respond, much less justify, their news decisions, but I’ll keep you updated:

If you are a reporter who covered, say, Fluke getting called a bad name but not the Gosnell trial, can you explain news decision there?

If you are a reporter who covered, say, Komen defunding @ppact but not the Gosnell trial, can you explain news decision there?

If you are a reporter who covered, say, Akin being an idiot but not the Gosnell trial, can you explain news decision there?

And if you were 1 of many journos who gave those stories repeated histrionic coverage and have ignored Gosnell, please explain that, too.

If everyone agrees to stay silent about this abortionist’s trial, the media blackout works. But some folks are speaking out. And they have some very tough questions about what it says about our press corps. For instance:

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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:

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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”:

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