Media Studies: What Can (And Can’t) Be Gleaned From The Gosnell Case

It’s probably one of the most disturbing news stories to cross anyone’s path in a while, I’ll spare you the details but Kermit Gosnell was a doctor performing botched abortions in terrible, unsanitary conditions and he is now facing murder charges in Pennsylvania. There was a recent convulsion on Twitter and in some sections of the media by various pro-life groups about how such a story deserves more coverage than it has gotten. Of the media responses that I’ve read, notably Conor Friedersdorf has essentially agreed that this is a newsworthy story, as has Dave Weigel (who also points out that, yes, the story did already receive a certain amount of national news coverage).

The first thing to bear in mind when discussing something like this is that media coverage is not something that is decided fairly and on a rational basis. It is memetic in nature and tends to focus on certain topics (noticeably missing white women) while ignoring others without regard to any sort of rational basis. The only exception to this, the only case in which there would be some kind of thought given to coverage might pertain to how a story might affect another business unit of the news organization or how it might affect sponsors. Other than that, it’s pretty unpredictable what will blow up into a national news event: Why did the Jodi Arias trial get wall-to-wall coverage? How is it that we all still remember Antoine “Hide yo wife, hide yo kids” Dodson? What about the recent infamous “poop-cruise?” That last one is significant because while Arias’ case is about murder (albeit one of thousands that happen every year) and Dodson was talking about a sexual assault (thousands, if not millions, of those happen every year too), the disabled cruise-ship was just about really lousy vacations with some health risks for a relatively small number of travellers.

There is a thread that ties the missing white women together with the poop cruise. Almost all of the cases of missing white woman syndrome involve upper-middle class sorts of women (bonus if they are photogenic) and even in the days of last-minute vacation deals, one usually has to be somewhat above the working poor at least to afford a vacation. The target demographic of television news skew upper-middle class (look at the ads on CNN if you want validation for that) and things that can affect people in this class are things that get covered. The typical “school shooting” news story is about suburban predominantly-white schools, when kids get killed in poorer, blacker neighbourhoods, it doesn’t make the news. That Kermit Gosnell is alleged to have inflicted the most harm on poor folks of colour is likely the surest reason that this case is not going to receive a whole lot of media coverage.

The other strike this case has against it is that there really isn’t that much that demands that it be paid attention to by the national media. This man is alleged to have done some terrible things, but there really isn’t that much more to report about the case. I know this doesn’t stop other murder trials from becoming national news, but I happen to think that almost none of them merit the widespread attention that a handful of them get. I don’t want more Kermit Gosnell, I want less Jodi Arias. The only time I’d devote much attention to a murder trial was if it appeared that there was a gross injustice in how it was being decided (rigged jury, lousy public defender, crooked cops, that kind of thing). If the Gosnell case is being handled correctly, then the actual court case does not merit much attention. What does deserve attention is that Gosnell was apparently able to operate this way without regulators stepping in and taking away his license. An investigation into this sort of failure of state oversight is the sort of thing that should get some kind of attention since this is the kind of public policy upon which we as citizens can demand action. (Interesting that most of the pro-life people I know generally want reduced government oversight in pretty much every other area.)

Of course, most people demanding more coverage of this murder trial are being disingenuous here. It’s not that they think the specific facts of this case are newsworthy in and of themselves but rather they want this in the news as way to frame the abortion debate. And this is perhaps the final reason why this story does not get a lot of media attention. There are perhaps five to ten percent of people at either extreme of the abortion debate spectrum who want to talk about this topic as much as they possibly can all the time, who stake out the most extreme positions and whose disdain of the other side is only surpassed by their disdain for moderates on this issue. And while most people do have an opinion on abortion, most people also have some nuance to it and also prefer not shouting about it every chance they get. I know this because I don’t know the opinions of most people I know on the topic of abortion, because I’d rather not bring it up because it is a great way to get in a shouting match, and/or end a friendship, and/or ruin a family gathering. It’s a topic that seems fruitless to argue about, so most people would rather leave it alone. So in addition to being about poor minorities, the Gosnell case is something that a handful of folks will use to try to discuss an issue that 80-90% of the population is not eager to bring up.