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Where's the Coverage of The Gosnell Trial?

May 13, 2013

The media has not provided wall-to-wall coverage of a particularly grisly trial of a Philadelphia abortion doctor because editors and producers say there has not been a hunger for more coverage from readers, listeners and views.

But Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense Making Project" said that the media has missed a chance to have a very important discussion by providing more coverage of this story.

Some have accused the liberal media of shying away from the story -- in which Dr. Kermit Goswell is charged with murder for several horrific late-term abortions and the death of a patient -- because it has a pro-choice bias.

"I think that's over simplistic," said McBride.  "Although, at the core of it, I think that's probably slightly accurate."

McBride pointed out that major wire services like Reuters and the Associated Press have provided almost daily coverage of the Gosnell trial. But, she said, "you are not seeing a lot of coverage from your local newspaper, from your local television stations or even from the network news or the national newspapers and there are a lot of questions about that."

When McBride started asking questions about coverage of the Gosnell trial, this is what she heard.

"When I have talked to executive producers and news editors at newspapers, what they tell me is that they don't sense a lot of demand from the audience for this particular story about Kermit Gosnell. In many cases, when people hear about this horrific case against him, they say, "Oh yeah, I'm interested in that" and they'll go and they'll look up a story and they'll read it once. But what we are not seeing in the metrics on these stories is people coming back to these stories over and over again to engage. So, in a certain sense, those news editors and executive producers are right when they say there's not a huge appetite for this in the audience."

But McBride argued that this story provided an opportunity to start a national discussion about certain aspects of the abortion issue, even though the interest in the day-to-day news on the trial was not there.

"The other question, I think, is whether there is some greater moral lesson to be gained from this," McBride explained. "And when editors consider that, I'm not sure that they're ready to wrestle with those questions. Abortion is a really difficult topic for journalists. Most of the things that people say about abortion can be categorized as politically charged rhetoric -- on both sides of the debate. And there's not a lot of nuance in our public debate about the policy around abortion which allows certain pregnancies to be terminated and other pregnancies not to be terminated."

And with the steady progress of modern medicine, McBride said, that's a discussion that journalism missed in the coverage of the Gosnell trial.

"Think about this," said McBride. "In Pennsylvania, you can have an abortion up to 24 weeks gestation. And in hospitals they are saving babies that are born at 22 and 23 weeks. It's rare, but it still happens. There's a conversation we have to have, both as journalists, as media organizations  -- but that conversation is really something we have to have as part of society."