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.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads