Media outlets continue to debate coverage (or lack thereof) of Kermit Gosnell trial

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The debate over national media coverage of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell, accused of performing gruesome illegal abortions and killing at least one woman, continues to rage since Kristen Powers' Thursday column in USA Today. The accusation from Powers has sparked some outlets to respond about their plans for coverage.

The Washington Post's Erik Wemple wrote on Friday that as far as national media coverage goes, the Media Research Center's NewsBusters site has been accusing the mass media of ignoring Gosnell since January 2011, when MRC President L. Brent Bozell III wrote that the "radio silence" on the case was shameful. Wemple says the ensuing debate is now "a bona fide media question."

On those occasions, the Erik Wemple Blog brings the matter to the attention of any allegedly offending news organization or journalist. At that point, a pretty common transaction unfolds. We are not at liberty to quote news organizations or journalists, but we can say that, when presented with questions that have their origins in MRC/NewsBusters research, the typical response is something along the lines of ”Get out of my face with this agenda-driven stuff, and come back when you have a real story.”

Wemple's Post colleague Melinda Henneberger had her own theories:

I say we didn’t write more because the only abortion story most outlets ever cover in the news pages is every single threat or perceived threat to abortion rights. In fact, that is so fixed a view of what constitutes coverage of that issue that it’s genuinely hard, I think, for many journalists to see a story outside that paradigm as news. That’s not so much a conscious decision as a reflex, but the effect is one-sided coverage.

In an earlier post, Wemple said he had "contacted ABC News, NBC News, CBS News, The Post and the New York Times" to detail their points of view on the case. Martin Baron, executive editor of the Post, responded with a statement:

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.

After my post last week on the debate, Associated Press director of media relations Paul Colford emailed me to point out a tweet he sent out regarding his organization's coverage:

As Poynter's Kelly McBride pointed out, other news organizations have also been covering it for awhile.

Jim Geraghty wrote Friday on the National Post Online that the argument for not covering the Gosnell case because it's a local crime story isn't good enough. That's the reason Washington Post health policy reporter Sarah Kliff gave Get Religion's Mollie Hemingway on Twitter:

Geraghty writes:

Except that a lot of “local crime” stories become national policy or politics issues, or at the very least get national coverage. Last night on Twitter I went on a tear: Trayvon Martin, the Cambridge police arresting Henry Louis Gates, O. J. Simpson, the Unabomber, Jeffrey Dahmer, Casey Anthony, D. B. Cooper, Bernie Madoff, Son of Sam, JonBenet Ramsey, Andrea Yates, David Koresh & the Waco compound, Amy Fisher . . . Heck, all of the gun massacres that drive our periodic discussions of gun laws are technically “local crime” stories.

Conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin used Monday's Boston Marathon explosions as an opportunity for a sarcastic riff on Kliff's tweet.

The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf, who wrote that the Gosnell news "ought to be a big story on the merits," enumerates the reasons why the story has garnered so much coverage for attracting so little in his most recent column, "14 Theories for Why Kermit Gosnell's Case Didn't Get More Media Attention." He posits ideas ranging from a judge's gag order for attorneys to a lack of coverage of race-based issues to the idea that "journalists live in a pro-choice bubble."

The only conclusions I'll offer are these: If you think any one theory completely explains how this case has been covered, you're almost certainly wrong. (Personally, I find it plausible that parts of almost all of these theories and many more affected coverage.) And like the abortion debate itself, the debate over Gosnell coverage has earnest, smart, well-meaning people on all sides. If you think otherwise, you haven't engaged enough people with the perspective you're demonizing.

The argument that the mainstream media isn't covering the trial, which began March 18, isn't gaining much traction in some corners. Pro-life activists "are not lamenting the lack of media coverage because any such lack of coverage actually exists," Jill Filopovic wrote for Al-Jazeera. "They are claiming a lack of media coverage as a way to brow-beat mainstream media sources into covering the issue with their particular frame."

If there was a pro-choice left-wing cover-up, it was a pretty shoddy one. After all, feminist and pro-choice writers covered Gosnell extensively when the story first broke in 2010 and in 2011 when the Grand Jury report detailing Gosnell's alleged crimes was filed. Coverage came from Katha Pollitt in the Nation, Amanda Marcotte in Slate, Kate Harding in Salon, Margaret Hartman and Erin Gloria Ryan in Jezebel, Akiba Solomon in Colorlines, Lori Adelman in NBC's the Grio, Michelle Goldberg in the Daily Beast, and dozens of other pieces in smaller publications and on blogs, including yours truly.

The timing of the debate also seems suspect to Salon's Alex Seitz-Wald, who wondered why pro-life conservatives waited until Powers' column to say anything at all about the Gosnell case.

Regardless of whether the Gosnell case should be getting more attention, it’s difficult to take complaints seriously from people who haven’t used their own public platforms to push a story they think others are now ignoring.

Eric Deggans, of Poynter's Tampa Bay Times, says it may simply be a misunderstanding of what is meant by saying an issue isn't getting coverage.

What people often mean when they say something got “no” coverage, is that the story didn’t become one of the select few subjects held at the top of the news agenda, given saturation coverage and blasted across every news outlet at the same time, like the push for gun control legislation or the trial of accused murderer Jodi Arias.

In fact, what they're really asking, is why hasn't it become a big TV story. Because that's how big local news stories become national issues.

  • Joshua Gillin

    Joshua Gillin is a contributor to Poynter's MediaWire blog and a writer, editor and pop culture blogger for the Tampa Bay Times and its sister tabloid, tbt*.


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