A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Media bias in abortion doc's trial?

There is a lively debate over whether major national news organizations have ignored or downplayed the trial of a Philadelphia abortion doctor who is charged with murder in the deaths of seven babies allegedly born alive and one mother. It's a case that has already contributed to restrictions on abortion providers and one that pro-lifers argue deserves much more attention.Details in the trial of Dr. Kermit Gosnell are certainly sensational enough. For example, one of Gosnell's assistants testified that she "snipped" the necks of at least 10 babies delivered alive. In one case, she testified, the doctor joked that the baby was big enough to have walked to the bus stop. But Gosnell denies that the victims were born alive and also denies what prosecutors say is their late gestational stage -- as much as 30 weeks for the victim the doctor allegedly joked about. (Pennsylvania law bars abortions after 24 weeks, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.) Gosnell's lawyer, meanwhile, charged that his client, who is black, is the victim of racism through a "prosecutorial lynching." He said Gosnell had performed 16,000 abortions in his career, and up to 1,000 a year. Gosnell could be sentenced to death by lethal injection if convicted of murdering the seven babies.With the sensational charges made by both sides, the intense emotions (many of the witnesses are dissolving into tears), the high stakes and the important social issues being raised, the Gosnell trial is clearly a national story. It has received that treatment from the largest U.S. news organization, the Associated Press, which has covered the trial daily and moved lengthy articles not only to regional clients but on the national wire as well. So daily, national coverage is available to those who want it. The New York Times, having done an article in 2011 on how Gosnell's squalid clinic had escaped state oversight, ran a story on the trial's opening arguments. (To review daily coverage of the trial, check the Philadelphia Inquirer.)But there are some major news organizations, especially the television networks, showing no interest in the trial. Is that because of bias? Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple questioned some of the national outlets, including his own. That led Martin Baron, the editor of the Post, to respond: "We believe the story is deserving of coverage by our own staff, and we intend to send a reporter for the resumption of the trial next week. In retrospect, we should have sent a reporter sooner."Yes, the Gosnell trial is news. National news, available from the AP wire.But I would expect to see few news organizations from outside the region staff the trial on a daily basis. The Gosnell trial was projected to last six to eight weeks. It's rare for a trial to receive day-to-day national coverage nowadays. It's expensive, especially for the TV networks, which have to dispatch a crew for an extended period of time. (It's much easier to assail the media for not doing the coverage than it is to report on a two-month trial yourself.)With that said, media bias in coverage of abortion was established long ago when David Shaw delved into it in a 1990 series in the Los Angeles Times. He found that, often subconsciously, news organizations reported on abortion from the pro-choice perspective. This was especially so at the TV networks. It's not hard to make sure an individual story is balanced, and a good copy editor can remove the phrases that give away the reporter's frame of reference. But deciding what's news and what's not is subjective. Nearly a quarter-century later, Shaw's reporting still holds in that regard.


Commenting Guidelines

This may be slightly off-topic, but I hope Robert P. George's appeal for mercy in the Gosnell case ( reaches more people than it is likely to.

New laws regarding, and regulation of, abortion mills in Virginia and other pro-life states has received much more news coverage than this grubby Philadelphia murderer: suspect this is because most of the mainstream media is pro-abortion, plain and simple. They much prefer that states (like CA) consider allowing nurses and midwives to perform abortions, mainly beacuase they work cheaper than an abortionist who has graduated medical school.

Very good post, Paul. I suspect there are a number of other prosaic reasons that media have not covered it as much as it should be, though I'm not sure how much more it should be covered. It is not clear that the trial itself is revealing or has a drama worthy of daily coverage. So much of the horrifying details rehash what has already been out there. I think it is the issues raised by the trial -- and ones that will endure after the verdict that should be points of discussion: the regulation of abortion clinics, the desperate recourse for poor women and people of color, the effects of diminishing access to abortion, etc. How coverage of these topics and the trial would play out isnt clear; some say its an argument for a better system of abortion provision and funding while those opposed to abortion seem to presume that coverage of the trail will naturally make people think abortion should be outlawed. One thing I would dispute is the argument out there that the relative lack of coverage is a media "blackout" and liberal conspiracy. Almost all of the conservatives harping on this meme are from outlets that have said nothing about Gosnell, less than the so-called MSM. So the question might be why the "conservative" media ignored Gosnell and why they are on the story now as a media criticism story rather than reporting the story per se and the issues it raised. It's dangerous to presume intentions and motives on either side, as the facts and real reason often tell another story. Here are links to a number of stories that show that there is no media blackout or conspiracy, even if the Gosnell trial should ganrer more coverage. Many of them also speculate on journalistic reasons why the case has not received the coverage that many would like:

Per Might Be: By understanding I mean we apply a bit more rationalization. Somewhat similar to the rationalizations that have allowed so many of us for more than half a century to defend the mutilation and killing of tens of thousands of utterly defenseless human beingsin a matter of moments in the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. . . You are correct in that we should not confuse emoting with reasoning, but somewhat similar to is faulty reasoning as well, in that regarding Japan, we were involved in a world war; we are not at war with babies.

Ken: "most of the mainstream media is pro-abortion, plain and simple"? Plain, maybe; simple, no. Most of the mainstream media are pro what their readers want, pro status quo and pro law in approximately that order. Their readers, by small margins, want abortion; abortion is the status quo, and abortion is legal. All three knees jerk in unison. It could be done, but it would take more than the case of one Philadelphia abortionist to move the media out of the comfortable ruts.

It seems to me that the Gosnell case, looked at dispassionatelywhich is admittedly difficult for almost anyone to doshows that just like any other medical providers, abortion clinics need to be watched by state and local health authorities, and when there are complaints about them, those complaints should be investigated. ... I think many pro-lifers would like to see extensive media coverage so they could say, See! This is the abortion industry! But of course Gosnell is in no way representative of abortion providers in the United States. "FWIW - many abortion advocates believe that the horrors that went on in Gosnell's clinic are anything but unusual - they believe that every clinic has its full share of horror stories, above and beyond the everyday banality of abortions that are done without medical complications (for the mom). What is captivating about the story in their eyes is the apparent regulatory failure (complicity) of the government regulators. And, now, too, the apparent disinterest (complicity) of the mainstream media.David, you state, "of course, Gosnell is in no way representative of abortion providers" - but isn't that "of course" premised on an assumption that there is a regime of regulation and inspection that prevent Gosnells from being replicated throughout the state or the country? Yet we learn in the Gosnell case that regulatory oversight was practically non-existent, even in the face of a number of complaints. I'd think that pro-choice advocates would be just as upset about Gosnell as pro-life advocates, because pro-choice advocates would want a regulatory regime that ensures that clinics are safe (for the mom).

Tom,Not quite, perhaps. "Most of the mainstream media are pro what their readers want ..."Most are what their corporate backers want. A million abortions a year is a rather nice gravy train I'm sure some people would rather see running on the tracks.

if they do not think they are killing human beingsOf course, this begs the question - If they are not human beings, then just what are they? They arent inanimate. They arent plants. They arent other animals. They have to BE something. They can only be human. There really is no other possibility.

Gosnell's nurse's account of digging a live baby out of a toilet and dispatching him or her via stabbing in the back of the neck, pretty much sums up why a "dispassionate" view of the matter is for the most part out of the question.That the people who worked in that place thought what they routinely did was Ok is the problem. The defense that abortionists do not think their victims are human, or have status, has a terrible precedent in that the nazis did not consider their victims worthy of life either -

In my previous comment, from 4/15, 11:39 am, I omitted a double-quote at the beginning of the first paragraph, possibly suggesting to readers that I was the author of that paragraph. I wasn't; I pasted that paragraph from one of David Nickol's thoughtful comments, and the remainder of the comment is my response to the snippet I pasted.

This post is rather disingenuous. It's not that there is no national coverage, it's that the national coverage is so much less than the story seems to demand on its very surface. A mass murderer is on trial, one who based his level of care on his patients' race, one who maintained a squalid medical establishment, one who went un-corrected and even un-inspected by any governmental oversight for decades. And it has gotten less national coverage than a college basketball couch berating his players.There is truly something going on here. The media is failing in its public duty, and it is reasonable to ask whether that failure is error, incompetence, or bias. And pro-choice advocates have great reason to want this story swept under the rug. Gosnell's clinic operated this way for decades without governmental oversight and the pro-choice movement has been pushing back against all legislation meant to ensure safe conditions at clinics (and not just the unreasonable legislation meant to eliminate abortion, but the reasonable legislation). Gosnell's practices offer a shocking view of the realities of late-term abortion. Gosnell's racism reveals the troubling questions of race and abortion rates that the pro-choice movement generally tries to downplay. The pro-choice movement has a lot to lose if this comes to life. As a movement, it depends on information staying out of the public view and sanitizing the realities of abortion. Covering this trial would drag not just Gosnell's abuses, but plain realities of abortion in this country, into the daylight.

Ken == The question of whether the Nazis and the abortionists are guilty of murder (which involves their purported knowledge and intentions) is NOT the same as the question of whether or not the fetuses are persons, especially in the third trimester. The Nazis are irrelevant to the central problem here: do abortions kill innocent people?