Savita’s tragic death and media ethics

Savita’s tragic death and media ethics December 11, 2012

The tragic death of Savita Halappananvar continues to produce headlines, particularly in Europe and India. We looked at some of the initial coverage three weeks ago, where I noted that the US media had adopted the pro-choice movement’s certainty about the circumstances surrounding Savita Halappanavar’s death.

I wondered whether about the journalistic rigor being applied to the story, both in terms of the medical statements being made prior to a review as well as the blame being assigned the Catholic Church. In short, the claims that were made about what happened in the hospital and the blame assigned to the Catholic Church weren’t exactly matching up with evidence or with Catholic teaching.

None of this stopped the rather dramatic rush to judgment. To that end, I wanted to share a few links about recent updates to the story regarding the initial journalism.

Here’s the top of Christine Odone’s report in the Telegraph:

The journalist who broke the story about Savita Halappananvar’s tragic death now admits that the facts were “a little muddled”.

In an astonishing radio interview, Kitty Holland of The Irish Times admits that her report was based on the husband’s version of events, but that in fact there may have been “no request for a termination”. Her earlier account stated that Mrs Halappananvar, an Indian in Ireland who was expecting a baby, had begged for a termination when complications arose with the birth; hospital staff denied her the abortion, allegedly saying: “This is a Catholic country”.

Holland’s exclusive tale of the tragic death made headlines around the world. Pro-abortion groups seized upon the story to condemn any review of abortion laws. Protesters chanting “Never again!”marched in Irish cities. Holland’s report ensured that abortion was hailed as a life-saving operation; that it should be cruelly denied a young woman was further proof (if any were needed) that the Catholic Church was backward and barbarian.

Except that none of this may be quite as it seems.

You’re probably not even surprised at this point. More on the Holland interview here. In a Catholic Culture piece headlined ” In Ireland, the case for legal abortion is built on fraud,” we’re told:

There is no evidence that Savita Halappanavar sought an abortion. There is no evidence that an abortion would have saved her life. There is, in fact, no evidence to support a connection between the abortion issue and this poor woman’s death. The reporter, Kitty Holland, told an RTE broadcast audience that her story never claimed an abortion would have saved the young woman’s life.But the headline—“Woman denied a termination dies in hospital’—certainly conveyed that impression. And in the days since the story appeared, dozens of Irish politicians and pundits have joined in clamorous calls for an end to the country’s abortion ban.

The reporter goes on to talk about Catholic teaching and Irish law. He adds:

If they genuinely wanted to prevent another such tragic death, Irish reporters would be scrambling to learn what actually happened in the Halappanavar case. But there is no competition to expose the medical facts. On the contrary, media outlets appear willing to let the exploitation proceed unchecked. The Irish Independent learned that the proponents of legal abortion learned about Savita Halappanavar’s death 3 days before the news became public, and held a strategy session to discuss how they might capitalize on the tragedy. That cynical manipulation went unreported elsewhere; other reporters were too busy taking their cues from the abortion advocates.

The article ends by saying that honesty in coverage would help:

What would it take to stop this political juggernaut? Just one thing: honesty. But as we Americans can testify, when it comes to the abortion debate, honesty is in short supply.v

No one could look critically at the deception and manipulation at the beginning of this year with the media’s treatment of Planned Parenthood and Komen and say otherwise.

In Tim Stanley’s piece for the Telegraph, he raises some important points about media ethics:

Perhaps what was most disturbing about the Savita story is how it was leaked to pro-choice activists before it was broken by the Irish Times. At least three days before the story went public, Irish Choice Network was notified by email that “a major news story in relation to abortion access is going to break in the media early this coming week,” and that it would be followed by a pre-arranged protest. We can infer that someone at either the Irish Times or the Health Services Executive conspired to use a private tragedy to push a political agenda. It’s all very Alinsky.

Run a news search on Savita’s death and you’ll find very little in the mainstream press that addresses these problems or, more importantly, corrects earlier false reports. It’s as if the story never happened. Perhaps it would have been better if it hadn’t. Rather than waiting for a proper investigation of what went wrong, some chose to broadcast the opinions of understandably distressed family members as if they were indisputable facts. And the commentary accompanying the journalism drew a straight, short line between an individual’s death and the Catholic Church. The takeaway: Catholicism kills.

There’s much more in his column about media treatment of Catholicism.

Finally, Breda O’Brien’s piece in the Irish Times headlined “Line between journalists’ opinions and reporting increasingly blurred” is also worth a perusal. There’s this interesting bit about how at least 37 Irish journalists, including nine from the Times and others from the nationalized broadcaster RTÉ, tweeted that they were taking part in pro-choice marches: The end of her piece is fascinating, though, and speaks to how the media shape the way we think about social issues:

Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate in economics, … believes that we have a dual-process brain, which he dubs System 1 and System 2.

System 1 is lightning fast, intuitive, and non-linear. Without it, we could not survive, because System 2 is slow, linear and energy-intensive.

We believe that we operate from System 2, in other words, that we are rational and objective, but we are operating most of the time from System 1.

Kahneman speaks of “self-sustaining chains of events”, that activate System 1 and virtually neutralise System 2. They often start from media reports, but lead to public panic and government action.

“The emotional reaction becomes a story in itself, prompting additional coverage in the media.” Anyone urging caution is accused of a “heinous cover-up”.

It is simply a fact that the majority of people working in the media share a particular worldview on social issues. For example, think about how often panels in RTÉ consist of people who share pro-choice views, with perhaps a token pro-life voice.

Now think of any time you heard a panel consisting of a majority of anti-abortion advocates.

Does the latter seem preposterous, and the first normal? Kahneman would smile. System 1 to the fore, once again. But the role of reporters, presenters and producers is not to start “self-sustaining chains of events”.

Or at least so their codes of ethics would seem to suggest.

System 1 is at the fore here in the States, too. I hope that there is still a desire to approach news rationally and objectively, though.

Angry man with hammer image via Shutterstock.

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  • Jay

    Not really that surprising. Something smelled fishy from the stories that I had read about this… The story just seemed to good to be true from a PR point of view.

    And NO if this story were actually true the behavior of hospital administration would not fit into the teachings of the Catholic Church. If a mother has a life threatening condition due to a pregnancy, you’ll find that most doctors who are adherent to the faith aren’t going to just say to the mom “We’ll them’s the breaks kid. You’ll just have to die along with your kid.” There are other procedures that can be performed to try and save the life of the mother and the child. This would of course deal with delving into Catholic medical ethics. Not the most interesting topic I suppose.

    • mollie

      To be sure, we don’t know what happened. Perhaps everything that was claimed happened exactly as first reported. I do not know. But my point is that journalists have a much higher standard to meet than what was on display here. And the tipping off of activists? That’s just not ethical.

      • Jay


  • Martha

    Well, dog my cats. When this whole thing broke, there was a deluge of comments over on a recent Catholic convert’s blog about “How can you possibly join a church that murders women?” and when I said “I’m Irish, let’s wait and see what the investigation reveals because I find it very hard to believe the husband was told ‘This is a Catholic country’ as the only reason”, I was asked was I calling him a liar.

    I’m not one bit surprised about the media angle on the story; the “Irish Times” has been trying to drag us backward natives into the light of progress for a long time, even after it stopped being the newspaper of the Ascendancy. The rest of the media pretty much peddle the same line.

  • I have to say I found this shoddy and deliberately misleading. You open with a relatively innocuous quote from the Telegraph, a mainstream and respected publication. You then deftly start quoting from This site is hardly a champion of the truth; myths peddled include the oft refuted claim that abortion causes breast cancer and campaign against gay rights and contraception. No wonder you tried to disguise your source!

    You then go on to quote Breda O’Brien’s Irish Times piece, despite the fact that it had been repudiated by the editor and proven grossly inaccurate before your blog post went live.


    • Also, the original story was quite explicitly based on the husband’s testimony. And Kitty Holland didn’t actually say the facts were “a little muddled”. The actual quote – with a lot of ellipses – is that “All one can surmise is that [Savita’s husband’s] recollection of events is…the actual timeline… may be a little muddled.”

      The original report – and it’s funny that it’s discussed at length but not linked to – opened with the fact that investigations were ongoing. It qualifies a great deal of the statements with “Mr Halappanavar said” and “he says” and “Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says”.

      As you’ve noted before, headlines aren’t written by reporters, so what exactly did Ms. Holland do wrong in the story itself?

  • The Old Bill

    Many years ago I interviewed a doctor on background about the death of another surgeon’s patient. The family blamed the surgeon and was suing. The doc I spoke to said, “Bad outcomes do not necessarily mean bad medicine. We need to know more.”

    So many stories treat the Catholic Church as a piñata. Put on the blindfold and swing the stick. When abortion is involved, it’s a two-fer.

    General Aviation accident stories are less politically charged, but still there is pressure for a quick cause. Sometimes, the cause is obvious, but NTSB investigators have to be patient, thorough and rational. Reporters, too.

    I am still surprised that so many journalists also call themselves activists. I am less surprised that their biases find their way into their stories.

  • Breda O’Brien

    Mollie, as the writer mentioned who wrote the piece critical of RTE, I have to clarify that RTE do not accept that any personnel who were staff members tweeted support for the pro-choice march. There were others who are freelance who did so, but I accept RTE’s distinction. I still believe that there is a problem with the lack of diversity among people who work for mainstream media. There is some diversity on economics, with people taking a variety of views from left to right. Even given that political categories do not fit social and religious concerns very well, there is not the same range of views on those issues. Put it this way. I am anti-abortion, anti-homophobia but sceptical about gay marriage, and openly speak about being a mostly failing, but trying very hard, Catholic. I can name with ease the people who fit that profile, and they are mostly opinion writers, not editors, and in the case of broadcast media, are not presenters or producers. (That is in a country that declared itself to be 84% Catholic in the last census. ) I think that is a problem, because having a variety of viewpoints would be healthier. Ironically, although US media tend to be very polarised, there is more diversity overall than there is in Ireland. Having said that, there are very many fine journalists in Ireland, and most of the time, the broadcast media do a good job. But it is the old, old problem – they just don’t get religion…

  • The sad thing is that many of the reporters/activists will never admit in print that they jumped too quickly on this story.