Covering the Gosnell Trial in a 24/7 Media World

Why should reporters outside Pennsylvania be covering the trial obsessively?

Kermit Gosnell, right, is charged with committing eight murders at his abortion clinic, pictured at left.
Jurors are currently evaluating evidence against Kermit Gosnell, right, who allegedly murdered babies with scissors at his Philadelphia abortion clinic.

There are legitimate questions about the media's coverage of the trial of abortion practitioner and accused murderer Kermit Gosnell. But they have little to do with the question of abortion rights.

Conservative and anti-abortion groups are outraged over what they see as the lack of media attention to the trial of Gosnell, who is accused of committing gruesome, illegal third-trimester abortions and running a squalid, house-of-horrors type clinic. You don't have to be anti-abortion to be horrified by the accusations. In fact, it's a pretty good example of what can happen to women when they don't have access to safe and legal abortion.

But suggestions that the "media" were deliberately ignoring the story to protect a so-called "abortion doctor" are ludicrous.

First of all, it's worth noting that some of the news outlets that have raised the issue of under-coverage themselves did not bothering covering the story until recently (and given the competing horror in Boston, it's understandable that the Gosnell story has receded again). It's a horrible story with grisly details, but it's a local story. Actually, nearly all murder cases are local stories; it's just that many have been absurdly raised to be national stories because 24/7 news outlets have to fill time 24/7.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Catholic contraception controversy.]

So what merits obsessive coverage? Wealth helps; media outlets are much more likely to cover a case when the accused or the victim is rich or privileged. And gender is a big factor. Critics are right to question why there is such intense coverage of the trial of Jodi Arias, who is accused of killing her boyfriend.

It's far more common for a man to kill his girlfriend, wife, ex-girfriend or even his entire family. But unless those cases are local, the stories tend to be a couple of paragraphs in the national round-up in newspapers. But Susan Smith? Casey Anthony? Jodi Arias? The media loves an accused murderess.

There's something a little pornographic about the coverage of violent crime, be it a bombing at a marathon or a single murder. Even stories of death and destruction that do not (or may not) involve an actual crime get the same treatment. How many times do we need to see the video of the explosion at the fertilizer plant in Texas?

And yes, we all want to know what progress has been made in capturing the attacker or attackers in the Boston case. But do we really need to see, again and again, the video of the explosion and the bleeding victims? Again, the demand for constant updates on the news has had a detrimental effect. Several news organizations erroneously reported this week that someone had been arrested for the crime. Everyone wants to be first, and it's interfered with the more important goal of being right.

The Gosnell case is a local murder trial. It's a particularly gruesome one – perhaps a bit too pornographic even for cable news. The burden of proof for the media is not why reporters outside Pennsylvania (where the clinic was located) should not be covering it nonstop. It's why they should.

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