Gosnell story raises questions about when national media should cover local stories

The media question of the day is why the Philadelphia trial of Kermit Gosnell is not garnering national media attention.

Gosnell is a Philadelphia doctor on trial for murder for performing late-term abortions that resulted in living babies that he then executed by snipping their spinal cords.

Kirsten Powers wrote an OpEd for USA Today detailing the horrors of this case, stating that none of the three major television networks have mentioned it in the last three months and claiming that The New York Times has only run one original story since the trial began on March 18. Conor Friedersdorf wrote a similar piece for The Atlantic.

Powers, Friedersdorf and other critics point out that, given how lurid the details of this case are, it’s surprising that national media outlets haven't covered it more. It is surprising that more outlets haven't covered it, but it's not entirely fair to say that national media haven't reported on it.

A quick search of the Associated Press archives turns up dozens of articles going back to when the indictment was handed down, AP Spokesperson Paul Colford told Poynter. Likewise, The New York Times ran several stories in 2011 and 2012, both staff-written and AP generated. Although, since the trial began, the Times has only run one story. Philadelphia media, meanwhile, has been covering the case extensively for years.

The Gosnell story raises questions about how national media decide when to report on a local story. Stories go from local to national for a number of reasons. You can look at the Stuebenville sexual assault case or the Trayvon Martin case and see examples of a local story with national implications.

Some news organizations may have considered the national angle to be a stretch. Although possible, it's a bit difficult to draw the connection between a doctor delivering premature babies, then murdering them and calling it abortion, to the overall debate that we are having in this country over who should have access to abortions and how they should be paid for.

There are important questions journalists can be asking to determine whether local stories like the Gosnell case are worth national media attention: Does the story inform our public debate about abortion? Is there a larger meaning to be gained? Or is there interest because it's shocking and abhorrent?

The answer to all three questions is likely yes. But it will be a hollow answer if the debate about Gosnell focuses more on the media's alleged crimes.

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    Kelly McBride

    Kelly McBride is a writer, teacher and one of the country’s leading voices when it comes to media ethics. She has been on the faculty of The Poynter Institute since 2002 and is now its vice president.


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