The University Record, March 8, 1999

Media gets ‘close to failing’ grade in assisted suicide coverage

By Mary Jo Frank
Office of Communications

Jack Kevorkian successfully “hijacked the media with his own agenda” with the prime-time airing of an assisted suicide on “60 Minutes,” according to bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan.

By treating the event as a crime story, Caplan said, the nation’s media squandered an opportunity to educate the public about end-of-life issues. The Nov. 22 airing of the death of Thomas Youk allowed Kevorkian to frame the discussion narrowly, either “we help people die or they die in pain,” Caplan said.

“Close to failing” is how Caplan described the media’s reporting of the controversial “60 Minutes” program. Caplan was the keynote speaker at the Feb. 22 conference “Covering Assisted Death: The Press, The Law and Public Policy,” which drew an audience of 400 to the Michigan Union Ballroom. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation sponsored the four-and-a-half-hour conference that was presented by the Michigan Journalism Fellows and the Law School. The conference featured a dozen panelists, as well as speakers Ljubisa Dragovic, Oakland County medical examiner, and attorney Geoffrey Fieger.

Caplan, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, shared a content analysis of 1,400 articles and television reports about assisted suicide and euthanasia published or aired between Nov. 15 and Dec. 15. The study showed the media overwhelmingly covered the “60 Minutes” program—including Youk’s moment of death—as a crime, or as “Jack as personality” story. Reporters quoted lawyers and prosecutors extensively while ignoring other viewpoints, including advocates for the disabled, religious leaders and ethicists. The media also failed to address key topics related to the end of life, including Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and the role of spiritual and religious support for the terminally ill, Caplan said.

Joining Mike Wallace, Clarence Page and Betty Rollin on the high-profile panel were other journalists as well as representatives of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Hemlock Society USA, American Medical Association (AMA), and U-M and Wayne State University law schools.

Wallace, CBS News “60 Minutes” senior correspondent, said when he first saw the video, “I was stunned by what I saw. It was apparent that it was a big news story, which is our business.” Assisted suicide has been on the American agenda for a long time, Wallace said, but the video of the death of Youk of Waterford Township, who suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), “put flesh and blood” on the issue.

In retrospect, Wallace agreed with critics that “60 Minutes” failed to put the story into context and did not offer viewers enough background about Youk or euthanasia. “60 Minutes” broadcast another program about assisted suicide Feb. 28, including a broader range of views and interviews with ALS patients who do not want to die.

Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist whose first wife committed suicide, said that too often the media fail to include the views of minorities in its coverage. A strong cultural and psycho-social resistance to suicide exists among African Americans, he said. Most distrust the health care industry and are less likely to receive high-tech care. African Americans also remember the abuse of 412 sharecroppers in the government-sponsored Tuskegee Experiment — men who were observed rather than treated for syphilis from 1932 to 1972. Page cited other reasons African Americans are less likely to support assisted death: survival impulse and deep spiritual traditions, including a belief in miracles and that God alone should decide the time to die. Page said he believes in the right to die, “but only if we’ve protected the right to live.”

Betty Rollin, NBC News correspondent and author of Last Wish, a book about the suicide of her terminally ill mother, said many people don’t understand the difference between assisted suicide and euthanasia. The media also have failed to report in detail about what has happened during the first year of implementation of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law, which only 15 people have used, she said. The Oregon law allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs gives peace of mind to the terminally ill, who fear prolonged pain and suffering, Rollin asserted.

Yank D. Coble, an endocrinologist and member of the AMA Board of Trustees, argued that physician-assisted suicide is inconsistent with the healing profession. He said patients want competent and compassionate healers and they also want control over their lives. The disabled and poor are most concerned about assisted suicide, he said, because of fears that they will be considered disposable.

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders and Wallace challenged Coble’s statement that physicians are not actively helping patients die. Saunders and Wallace asserted that physicians are hastening death with lethal doses of pain medication and by withholding antibiotics, food or water. One reason media coverage of end-of-life issues is poor, Saunders said, is because many reporters don’t stay on beats long enough to become familiar with the subject.

Fieger, who formerly represented Kevorkian, also was critical of the media’s coverage of assisted suicide. Journalism has become a mechanism of entertainment, he said, and reporters are becoming “young and younger, dumb and dumber.” Fieger described Kevorkian as a little Armenian hero, a flawed hero he compared to Patrick Henry or Joan of Arc. Assisted suicide is the civil rights issue of the 1990s, Fieger said. Because it strikes so closely to the heart of human existence, people have difficulty addressing it.

Anti-physician assisted suicide protesters, including members of Not Dead Yet, heckled Fieger and other speakers who support assisted suicide; the demonstrators repeatedly asked conference organizers why no advocates for the disabled were among the panelists.

Charles Eisendrath, director of the Michigan Journalism Fellows program and conference moderator, said the panel was assembled to give a broad perspective. He said the purpose of the conference was to examine media coverage, not the pros and cons of assisted death.