Pod People: Media wake up to Gosnell failures

Pod People: Media wake up to Gosnell failures April 14, 2013

GetReligion’s critique of media coverage of abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell’s trial has received quite a bit of attention in recent days. I’m glad, since we’ve been aware of the problem with media coverage of this topic since early 2011. My post from January of that year, “8 Murders in Philadelphia,” shows the history of problems in coverage.

We looked at many abortion-related stories since that time, but they were, naturally, in the area that the media took the most interest — the Susan G. Komen feeding frenzy, the Sandra Fluke drama and the Todd Akin obsession. In fact, it seemed I spent most of my year paying quite a bit of attention to what the media wanted me to pay attention to — those stories. They were viewed as extremely, extremely important stories for the populace to pay attention to.

And so I found it disturbing that, when the Kermit Gosnell trial commenced last month, the coverage was so very weak or non-existent. I wanted to critique the coverage, but there just wasn’t too much to look at. The first day of the trial was the exception, and we looked at some oddities with how that trial was being covered by the Associated Press in “The new ‘abortion’: cutting newborns’ spinal cords.”

By Monday of last week, it was clear that there had been a massive failure across the media — as I wrote in “Should media cover — or cover up — abortion trial?” Then we discussed some frames that might be helpful for reporters struggling to do their jobs in “Mainstream press on Gosnell: adjust the framing.” As the week progressed and I got more and more confused by the media blackout, I wrote, “We need answers on Gosnell coverage,” picking up on Kirsten Powers’ powerful USA Today column calling for front-page, top-of-the-broadcast coverage of this horrific trial.

That’s when I got to work asking a few reporters to explain their role in the blackout, and you can read about the early part of that project in “WPost reporter explains her personal Gosnell blackout” and “Politico and Atlantic.com’s turn to explain Gosnell blackout.”

I wanted to provide all that context before linking to this week’s Crossroads podcast. Host Todd Wilken and I discuss this huge story and we also discussed the “how” and “why” of this story. I know that many people are demanding answers on those last questions and I am trying to weigh in. It is, of course, difficult to know how this massive media failure happened. I assume it’s quite complex. We discuss racism, views on abortion, and narrative frames. Wilken wonders whether abortion views led some journalists to think these murder charges weren’t a big deal. There are many more possible answers.

When I was on Fox News on Friday to discuss the lack of media coverage of this case, I was so pleased by what Kirsten Powers said when asked to explain why this all happened. She noted that some journalists were writing mea culpas that included admissions of pro-choice bias. But, she said, she couldn’t really speak to motivation.

I know that this Gosnell dust-up is happening in a very heated political environment. GetReligion is a media analysis blog. Our readers have done a very good job of discussing this topic respectfully and thoughtfully by focusing on media coverage as opposed to underlying views on abortion. If you’d like to discuss politics or religion, that is of course fine, but you can’t do it here. There are other places better suited for that. We really need to keep a tight focus on media coverage here.


On that note, I hope editors and reporters understand what a touchy moment we’re in. The failures of Gosnell coverage have seriously harmed an already fragile trust with readers and viewers. We need to work very hard to make up some ground here. We need to see quality, prominent journalism on this topic, not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because our industry can’t afford to lose more credibility. And that’s the first order of business — doing some quality reporting on a charged topic. Once that’s taken care of, I hope to see some introspective analysis about just what in the heck contributed to this failure and what can be done in the future to make sure we’re not writing eleventy billion stories on, say, Sandra Fluke and the Susan G. Komen Foundation — while ignoring a politically charged abortionist’s mass murder trial. This isn’t just about the failures of Gosnell coverage but also the environment that laid those failures bare — the stark disparity between how some topics are covered vs. others.

So if you have any helpful thoughts on what reporters and their editors can do right now … or in the future … please share them. And here’s the Crossroads link again.

I will note that the Washington Post publicly admitted they should have covered the trial and is working to rectify the situation and the New York Times has suggested they got the memo for additional coverage, too. (The editorial desk did not get the memo. They really, really, really did not get the memo.) I’ve also heard, privately, from a number of mainstream media professionals who will be trying to catch up on this story.

We’ll be here to monitor that coverage and see how things go. Thank you to our long-time readers who have shown so much support and civility over the years.

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14 responses to “Pod People: Media wake up to Gosnell failures”

  1. Mollie,

    One justification for not covering Gosnell had been that it’s old news. I can’t find that on the other threads, so am putting it here.

    While cruising Google News, I found no mention of Gosnell, but there was this, about a Catholic priest removed from ministry in 2002 and laicized in 2005. Old news? I’m linking to ABCNews, but noted it also on Philly.com. Presumable it’s everywhere.


    I should say I don’t object to this story at all, but it’s pretty old news. The rationale for the story is that a 2001 allegation of Indecency with a Child has been filed. The focus is on the Church, of course, and that’s not a huge problem, since he was already a registered sex offender when he was transferred to west Texas. But this guy has been molesting since at least 1986. Sex offenders being my day job, I’m telling you the guy is a predator; he’s gotten two light sentences and a new charge 12 years after the crime. Nothing about the negligence of law enforcement.

    By the way, Google also had a piece on the president and gay rights. But nothing on Gosnell.

    • By this “logic” the media didn’t cover the O.J. Simpson news because the infamous slow-speed white bronco chase and his arrest had happened months prior.

      Are you serious?

      This is a trial where Kermit Gosnell’s life is on the line. The media regularly cover trials even if they covered the arrest extensively. Old news? The trial started two weeks ago. It continues tomorrow. People are testifying publicly for the first time about what they saw, heard and did inside that charnel house. That’s new. This is Journalism 101.

      • I completely agree with you, and had some similar thoughts about the OJ trial. But I have to agree with Ken as well, in that this is one of the most common retorts I get when I ask why there’s no coverage. Someone will send along an NBC clip from 2 years ago, say “see they DID cover it,” and then ask me why I want the media to keep hammering us on it. The OJ trial coverage is a good counterpoint, but I don’t know anyone who would say they wanted to see that level of coverage even then. Maybe reporters have been told not to commit the OJ-over-reporting sin and this is just the result? When’s the last time we had major national-level trial coverage for something that broke years prior?

  2. Reading that “New York Times” editorial piece, my jaw is dropping. Let me quote you why (bold is my emphasis):

    “Anti-abortion groups responded by trying, unsuccessfully, to get the local planning commission to rezone the site to keep out medical services, and by filing bogus complaints with building inspectors and fire marshals in an effort to shut down renovations. The harassers even filed a complaint with the Kansas State Board of Healing Arts, the state body that regulates medical providers, alleging the illegal practice of medicine when the clinic was not even open.

    Ms. Burkhart’s own home has been picketed twice in the last few months. The second time, she saw a sign pointed at her house that said, “Where’s your church?” — a reference, which she found “incredibly frightening,” to Dr. Tiller’s murder at his church. She has obtained a temporary protection order against the fanatic who led the picketing, and she is seeking a permanent one. There is now tighter security at her home and the clinic, she says.

    …Recently, one of the doctors who will be commuting from another state to work at South Wind received a harassing phone call from Troy Newman, head of the extremist anti-abortion group Operation Rescue.”

    And we know that the leader of the picketing group was a “fanatic”, how? I can’t understand why they didn’t come out with “The black-hatted villains who cackled as they twirled their moustaches and plotted their evil schemes against the noble pure-hearted provider of vital medical services”. They certainly wrote as if they wanted to say that. Remind me again about that impartial American versus advocacy European model of journalism?

    Perhaps Ms. Kliff should explain to her fellow-journalists in the NYT that they have no business covering a story from Kansas, what with it being local news and all that, not to mention that they already wrote about Tiller’s clinic way back when it first happened so there’s no news value there now.

    • It was an editorial piece as you noted early on. Why then did you misrepresent it as news writing later in your comment? That slipperiness might qualify you for talk radio or Murdoch’s cable operation but doesn’t enhance what otherwise might be a valid argument. That the NYT is not anti-abortion or as they would put it are pro-choice is well known. However, I’ve read at least two news pieces on the Gosnell trial on their site and they were well written and informative. I got the gruesome details and the nature of the charges and evidence. The seediness and horror came through. They did not ignore it and once the verdict is in, they’ll report it.

  3. I’d like to see the press cover the journal articles by pro-choice ethicists, who argue for after birth abortions, presumably less horrifically than Gosnell, but up to when the child can care for his or herself (whenever that is). I’d also like them to probe why we call the royal prince’s child a baby and coo about him or her, the child of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, conceived in adultery, not only a child, but speculate on his or her godparents, but a child of someone who doesn’t want to give birth is a fetus. That would help some.

  4. I live right next door to Ft. Hood.

    If Maj. Hasan so much as *sneezes*, the local media’s all over it like Michael Moore on a bag of marshmallows.

    But by the line of reasoning of the national media, the local outfits should just be ignoring everything.

  5. It is really very simple if you look at it from their point of view. They do not care. No one in the newsroom cares. No one the reporters actually know outside of the newsroom cares. Their advertisers don’t care and the bulk of their readers don’t care. And all of the above view the people who do care as nothing but a bunch of religious nuts. I’m surprised that they are bothering to respond at all.

  6. James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal has a rather powerful opinion article–in which he links to, among several other things–including the Kirsten Powers USA Today op-ed piece and the Conor Friedersdorf Atlantic article–a blog post by PJMedia’s Roger L. Simon, a conservative “pro-choice” voice, about the galvanizing implications of the reporting–finally–on the Gosnell trial. Mr. Simon’s take on what’s behind the earlier missing reporting (which he supports by recounting the effect of hearing about the trial on his and his wife’s immediate reflections and discussion about their “pro-choice” position: “The trial of Dr. Gosnell is a potential time bomb exploding in the conventional liberal narrative on abortion itself.” Taranto uses his column to “welcome” Mr. Simon “to the mushy middle” (a place to which Taranto had taken a different route. At least people–including journalists–are now talking about it! And, from my view, a lot of the thanks goes to Mollie and a few others who refused to let the media remain in denial.

  7. This clip from Fox appalled me: Fox’s interviewer clearly didn’t get (1) that the babies Gosnell is accused of murdering had been born and must have been because (2)- it isn’t a crime to murder fetuses in the womb kicking or not and (3) she doesn’t see the total lameness of her excuse for why Fox hasn’t covered it (and for all I know, she could even be wrong about that too and they have covered it, I mean, how would she know?) : her excuse was that it was just too horrible to cover–not just lame but ironic, since Molly’s point is that news people should just do their jobs and cover stuff whatever their personal views are. Molly, I’m going to forgive you for not correcting this anchor on the grounds you were so stunned by her ignorance that you were in shock.

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