Sunday, April 14, 2013

Kermit Gosnell, Murdered Newborns, and the Media (p. 3)

Kermit Gosnell, Murdered Newborns, and the Media
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The Media

As I mentioned earlier, this story didn’t really get all that much coverage until Kirsten Powers wrote her op-ed piece about the lack of media coverage in USA Today on 2013-04-11-TH. The trial began on March 18, after all. To quote journalist Megan McArdle on this, herself a pro-choice advocate:
This story should have been covered much more than it was—covered as a national policy issue, not a "local crime story." The press has literally been AWOL.
As I mentioned before, the press did cover it a little bit, but not nearly as much as what the story seemed to deserve. So why did this happen?

One could argue that the reason it hasn’t made the front page is that the story is ghastly and makes people uncomfortable, but I find that implausible. The school shooting of Sandy Hook Elementary didn’t exactly leave everyone cheering for joy, and I doubt it would have received any less coverage had the killer been more vicious.

Another theory is geography; Philadelphia isn’t as much of a major city as New York City or Washington D.C., and if the crime happened in one of the latter two cities (where national media outlets tend to be located in) maybe it would have gotten more attention. Maybe, but Newtown (the city in Connecticut) was less a major city than Philadelphia when the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting became famous.

Another idea is that the trial doesn’t raise politically sexy issues. With the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in Connecticut, this fired up the controversy over gun control. In contrast, there really isn’t much controversy about outlawing the murdering of newborns. That said, there certainly have been front-page type criminal trials where no celebrity was involved that got more coverage than this did (e.g. Drew Peterson), cases where murder is likewise not controversial. Even more apropos is the murder of George Tiller a few years back, an abortion doctor who was murdered by (ironically) pro-life activists. This too received more news coverage than the Gosnell case. Then there’s the massive government oversight failure regarding the Gosnell incident that has very real and important policy implications here. Remember, the grand jury report accused Pennsylvania’s Department of Health of willfully disregarding patient safety.

Then we have the elephant in the room: the political controversy of abortion. One of the disturbing aspects of this case were all the red flags about the abortion-providing practice that were ignored for years. Earlier I noted that the grand jury report said one of the reasons for insufficient oversight was pro-choice politics. Upon reading what the grand jury report has to say about the Pennsylvania Department of Health, one is almost given the impression that they didn’t want to believe such horrible things were happening. When the FBI raided Gosnell’s clinic in 2010, it was looking for evidence that he was selling prescription drugs, not evidence for the gross medical malpractice that was going on. So it’s hard not to get the idea that on some level people just didn’t want to talk about this sort of thing much. And it’s hard for the rational individual to not at least suspect something similar might have been going on in the media. In her article Why I Didn't Write About Gosnell's Trial--And Why I Should Have, Megan McArdle illustrates the sort of thing I have in mind:
But I understand why my readers suspect me, and other pro-choice mainstream journalists, of being selective—of not wanting to cover the story because it showcased the ugliest possibilities of abortion rights. The truth is that most of us tend to be less interested in sick-making stories—if the sick-making was done by "our side."
McArdle is to be commended for her honesty in admitting that this was a factor for her, but I doubt this being a factor was unique to her. I think this sort of thing is simply part of human nature. When I wrote my article on Religion’s Social Influence I noted how I’ve seen Christians believe their faith to have if anything a benevolent effect on humanity and atheists believe the opposite. By my lights there seems to be a natural temptation to downplay the bad things of one’s own tribe and disproportionately emphasize the good things of one’s own tribe, as a sort of tribal selfishness.

This is what can lead to bias, both in reporting current events and on other topics. There is a temptation to obscure relevant details or omit facts that are inconvenient to one’s side. To obscure relevant details, a biased documentary, speaking of interviewing a group it disagrees with, might say something like, “We didn’t interview this group because they demanded something inconsistent with normal journalistic practices,” not mentioning that the request the documentary so vaguely refers to is the group wanting their own copy of the interview to ensure that what they said wouldn’t be taken out of context. When it comes to omitting relevant details, a person might say, “I know my scientific belief is right because Professor X says it is right,” and not mention that Professor X’s belief on the matter conflicts with what most relevant scientific experts have to say on the matter. Bias isn’t just about what you put in, it’s about what you leave out—and what you underreport.

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