Media’s Gosnell reputation isn’t going to fix itself

Days after my quest for answers about why the media downplayed abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s abortion trial went viral, we have seen approximately eleventy billion media analysis pieces about the coverage. Many folks have written mea culpas copping to pro-choice bias, ignorance, or other journalistic failures. Some folks have tried claiming that the coverage was really there, usually pointing to either 2011 or the day the trial began (a curious approach, given what we know about the time-space continuum). Others have said that since conservative outlets didn’t cover it (except, you know, they did), that excuses the lack of mainstream coverage. Some folks just reacted defensively, yelled at me and called me names. It really ran the gamut.

What we haven’t seen terribly much of, however, is good coverage of the trial, the abortion industry, regulation of said industry or the larger issues in play. The New York Times hasn’t run anything in days, after one particularly weak story that barely mentioned the trial.

Or take the Los Angeles Times. Let’s take a trip through its search engine. When birth control activist Sandra Fluke was called a bad name, did it think that a story worth covering? Yes, big time:

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What about that Komen/Planned Parenthood dust-up? The East Coast media flipped out about the decision by a private breast cancer foundation to stop funding the country’s biggest abortion provider. Did the Los Angeles Times? Yep:

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What about that Missouri Representative, Todd Akin, who said something very stupid about rape? Uh, yeah:

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So before we look at how the trial of Kermit Gosnell has been covered by the paper, let’s look at how the paper has covered another distant case, one that hasn’t even gone to trial yet. The case dealing with the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Oh boy:

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Which brings us to the Times‘ coverage of Kermit Gosnell.

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On Sarah Kliff’s mea culpa on Gosnell (a national story)

If you have been on Twitter in the past week or so, you probably know that our own M.Z. Hemingway recently wrote a post that noted:

… Since tmatt has me reading the Washington Post every day, to look at how the paper’s health policy reporter was covering Gosnell. I have critiqued many of her stories on the Susan G. Komen Foundation (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Sandra Fluke controversy (she wrote quite a bit about that) and the Todd Akin controversy (you know where this is going). In fact, a site search for that reporter — who is named Sarah Kliff — and stories Akin and Fluke and Komen — yields more than 80 hits. Guess how many stories she’s done on this abortionist’s mass murder trial.

Did you guess zero? You’d be right.

So I asked her about it. Here’s her response:

Hi Molly — I cover policy for the Washington Post, not local crime, hence why I wrote about all the policy issues you mention.

Yes. She really, really, really said that.

Well, about 120,000 or so social media interactions later, this journalistic discussion achieved that state that I think young people (as opposed to old people like me) call “going viral.” I think that’s the term. Did I get it right?

A whole lot of water has passed under the bridge since late last week and I have asked Mollie to continue to chart the debates with, as always, our emphasis focusing on people who are trying to promote accurate, balanced coverage of the religious, moral, cultural and scientific issues linked to this trial. In other words, we think the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell is a big, national news story and it really doesn’t matter where one stands on abortion rights, or how often one does or does not go to church, to realize that.

If you have not read it already, and you have a strong stomach, let me recommend in particular the Conor Friedersdorf piece in The Atlantic online that ran with this blast of a two-decker headline:

Why Dr. Kermit Gosnell’s Trial Should Be a Front-Page Story

The dead babies. The exploited women. The racism. The numerous governmental failures. It is thoroughly newsworthy.

That piece ended with this journalistic shot over the bow:

To sum up, this story has numerous elements any one of which would normally make it a major story. And setting aside conventions, which are flawed, this ought to be a big story on the merits.

The news value is undeniable.

Why isn’t it being covered more? I’ve got my theories. But rather than offer them at the end of an already lengthy item, I’d like to survey some of the editors and writers making coverage decisions.

Now, Friedersdorf is back with that promised follow-up piece that is simply too complex to discuss in this context, as suggested in his similarly massive headline:

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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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WPost demonstrates how not to respond to Gosnell critiques, again


It’s like drinking water from a fire hose. That’s what processing all of the information coming out right now about either the trial of abortionist Kermit Gosnell or the problems with the media coverage of same is like. I have 600+ emails in my inbox to open and they keep coming. Many want to just talk about the media coverage but some are from reporters asking for help covering the story. It’s very good news that reporters and editors are working to improve coverage of this story.

I’ve heard privately and publicly from major publications and media outlets, either linking to their work on the matter or telling me that they will be working on it.

The two big stories we have right now are the trial itself, which is ongoing, and the media coverage failures. These are separate issues. Someone asked on Twitter whether coverage of media failures count as Gosnell coverage. It’s an excellent point. Even though we’re media critics here, and we live to discuss the media, our aim is improved coverage. I’d take one quality story on the Gosnell trial for every 100 mea culpas or defensive reactions for the media failures.

As I said to USA Today:

Mollie Hemingway, who writes about religion and the media in a blog called “Get Religion,” said the USA TODAY column brought to the forefront something religious groups, conservatives and abortion opponents had talked about for months. “But they have a limited audience,” she says. Powers’ column “revealed to a whole new audience what the media had been hiding from them.”

Hemingway cautions against conspiracy theories. But, she says, journalists need to figure out how to avoid repeating similar mistakes.

“We have a lot of catchup to do,” she says. We have to cover this (trial) well, cover it prominently, and we have to restore trust with our readers.”

The best way to restore trust is to simply cover the story. I hope to see more of that basic news coverage in the days, weeks and months to come. The piece at the top of this post by CBS News this morning is a fantastic start.

But if we’re going to write the navel-gazing pieces, we can’t rewrite history, react defensively or ignore reality. Sadly, that’s what Paul Farhi does in his very odd defense of the Washington Post‘s coverage failures “Is media bias to blame for lack of Gosnell coverage? Or something far more banal?

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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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Some familiar religion-news questions, after 25 years

What are the odds?

Several years ago, I realized that I was not really sure how long I had been writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. As some of you may know, aging brains often struggle with detailed information of this kind (especially when the brain in question also deals with 100-plus emails every day).

Anyway, I dug back into my analog files (thick folders full of paper printouts) and calculated that I would START my 25th year on April 11, 2013.

Then, a week ago, I pulled out the same folder and realized that I had looked at the front of the file, but that the columns were in reverse order with the oldest one at the back. Thus, I was one year off.

Thus, this week’s column marked the 25th anniversary of the column. You’ll be shocked, shocked to know that it focuses on the fact that mainstream news organizations continue to struggle, when it comes to covering religion news. More on that in a moment.

At the same time, I have watching the numbers at the GetReligion dashboard, by which I mean at our WordPress production page, climb toward another symbolic number — 8,000.

This post, as it turns out, is No. 8,000 — in just over nine years.

It’s kind of a Zen thing, don’t you think? The 8,000th post is about my 25th anniversary column which is about how the mainstream press struggles to “get religion.”

Anyway, when I sent the column out to friends, former students, etc., I put a note on top thanking five people in particular for their help and inspiration. The request for a national Scripps Howard religion column came from Harry Moskos, then editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, and it was backed early and often by William R. Burleigh, who spent his whole journalism career with the E.W. Scripps Company and ended up running the whole shooting match. Also, I thanked the late Ralph Looney and Ben Blackburn, the top editors at the Rocky Mountain News who hired me to cover religion and later backed the creation of the national column. And, of course, I thanked my mentor in journalism, Prof. David McHam, who is STILL teaching journalism ethics and law, and how to write ledes (currently an emeritus professor at the University of Houston).

So the column is out, and here is how it starts:

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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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