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

On Sarah Kliff’s mea culpa on Gosnell (a national story) April 17, 2013

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:

14 Theories for Why Kermit Gosnell’s Case Didn’t Get More Media Attention

Every one of them amounts to someone saying, “This is how I think American journalism works.”

The key, for me, is that the debates about the Gosnell trial are, in the end, about the current health of what historians call the American Model of the Press. It’s pretty obvious at this point that many very powerful journalists raised in the ’60s (Yes, I’m talking about Bill Keller’s Austin speech again) no longer believe that it is necessary, or possible, to be accurate and fair when covering moral/religious news stories, as opposed to political stories, strictly defined. In a column for Scripps Howard, I wrote this about the views of the newly retired leader of The New York Times:

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

The bottom line: Keller insists that the newspaper he ran for eight years is playing it straight in its political coverage.

However, he admitted it has an urban, liberal bias when it comes to stories about social issues. And what are America’s hot-button social issues? Any list would include sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion. That’s all.

I think this is part of what Friedersdorf is getting at in his 10th theory on the lack of Gosnell coverage:

(10) Ideological Bias Distorts the Crusades Journalists Are Willing to Embark Upon

This theory is advanced by Ross Douthat in his New York Times column. As he sees it, outlets that aspire to “objective” news coverage are pursuing two different goals that are in tension with one another: on one hand, they try to report and write every story in a fair, balanced, non-partisan manner; on the other hand, they believe a core duty of journalists is “fighting for the powerless against the powerful and leading America toward enlightenment.” On culture war issues, “an official journalistic commitment to neutrality coexists with the obvious ideological thrust of a thousand specific editorial choices,” Douthat writes. “What kinds of questions are asked of which politicians; which stories get wall-to-wall coverage and which ones end up buried; which side is portrayed as aggressors and which side as the aggrieved party, and on and on and on.” As the sparse coverage of the Gosnell trial suggests, he continues, “the problem here isn’t that American journalists are too quick to go on crusades. Rather, it’s that the press’s ideological blinders limit the kinds of crusades mainstream outlets are willing to entertain.”

In comments, a reader retorted, “When it comes to human rights, there is only one right side. When it comes to women’s rights, which after all are human rights, there is only one right side. When it comes to abortion, there is only one right side (it’s the side that says women are people and have the right to bodily autonomy). The story of Kermit Gosnell, the abortion provider you mentioned, isn’t about abortion per se. It’s about the lack of access to safe abortion in this country. It’s about how substandard health care *is* the standard in poor areas. But it is NOT about the morality of abortion.” If enough decision-makers in the media agree with that perspective (an impossible question to answer), coverage of the Gosnell case was affected by it.

Anyone who has read media-bias studies since, oh, roughly 1980 or so knows that journalists, especially in urban, tolerant, sophisticated zip codes, lean solidly forward (that means to the left) on abortion.

But remember that, in this case, we are not talking about a bias of commission in most of the Gosnell coverage. Instead, we are talking about a bias of omission, we are talking about the lack of coverage.

This brings us, by a long route, back to Kliff.

Many GetReligion readers will know that, earlier this week, she posted an article at a Post website that opened like this:

When I described the case of abortion provider Kermit Gosnell on Twitter last week as a local crime story, I was clearly wrong. The egregious and horrifying crimes committed in the physician’s West Philadelphia abortion clinic have become a matter of national attention.

The key words in that paragraph, to me, are “have become.” The implication is that the story, for key decision makers, has become a national story because of the tsunami of digital discussion of the coverage (including ink in strategic locations, such as The Atlantic, that would be respected by elite editors) turned this into a national story.

Kliff’s name (and often her photo) jumped into the middle of this discussion because Twitter is Twitter and the names are right there in bold, when journalists allow them to be. MZ noted that, as a policy-beat star, Kliff has written many, many, many times on topics with strong connections to the DNA of the Gosnell trial. Where was her byline, this time around?

That’s a fair comment to make and Kliff’s amazingly blunt “local news” response served as a perfect hook for a social-media explosion and, well, her name was on the tweet.

But let’s not miss the obvious here. Most stories end up on A1 because editors sit around a conference room table and make decisions about what stories belong where. The Gosnell trial is a national story and, in the Post newsroom, that means that the key decisions were made by the editors on the national desk. This is one reason why, about 99 percent of the time, your MZ and the rest of your GetReligionistas choose to praise and criticize entire newsrooms, rather than individual reporters.

We know that editors make the most important calls on these issues, at the Post and in other newsrooms. National-desk editors make the key decisions on national-level stories. Right?

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