No Life Support for You

The media coverage of the Schiavo case doesn't include one important detail: a Texas law that authorizes health care providers to remove their patients from life support. Guess who signed it into law?
For honest reporters, the Terri Schiavo case is something of a nightmare. Not so for ratings-obsessed cable news directors, of course, who must be delighted with the timing: they can now shift from the lives and deaths of Scott and Laci Peterson to the life and death of Terri Schiavo without missing a beat.

Real reporters and editors, by contrast, have to decide how much, or even whether, to anchor their reports in a larger context – a tricky decision when reporting about an issue that inflames cultural and political passions. And they know that media bias warriors are scrutinizing every sentence, ready to attack at the first sign of reporting that doesn't square with their worldview.

Example: Most everyone in Washington (and, for that matter, elsewhere) believes that grandstanding politicians are using the issue for political gain. But should that information be included in every story, or should news consumers be allowed to come to their own conclusions?

One option is to simply put forth incontrovertible facts – say, by including in each story quoting a Republican lawmaker, the fact that a one-page GOP memo leaked last week called the Schiavo case "a great political issue" that would appeal to the party's base and potentially result in the defeat of Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

That's not to say that there are not genuine values at stake for congressional Republicans, many of whom truly believe that removing Schiavo's feeding tube would be a moral wrong. If their actions are cynical, they aren't completely so, and reporters would be doing a disservice by suggesting as much – just as they would be by ignoring the memo all together.

There is one bit of context, however, that seems particularly salient, and it involves a six-month old boy named Sun Hudson. On Thursday, Hudson died after a Texas hospital removed his feeding tube, despite his mother's pleas. He had a fatal congenital disease, but would have been kept alive had his mother been able to pay for his medical costs, or had she found another institution willing to take him. In a related Texas case, Spiro Nikolouzos, who is unable to speak and must be fed through a tube because of a shunt in his brain – but who his wife says can recognize family members and show emotion – may soon be removed from life support because health care providers believe his case is futile.

The Hudson and Nikolous cases fall under the Texas Futile Care Law, which was signed into law by then-governor George W. Bush.

Bush, however, flew from Texas to Washington early this week to sign legislation authorizing federal courts to review Schiavo's case. The president felt that the Florida courts, which had reviewed the case several times over the past seven years, had failed in their duty: "In cases like this one, where there are serious questions and substantial doubts, our society, our laws and our courts should have a presumption in favor of life."

As Mark Kleiman, who brought the Texas cases to our attention, points out, "An argument of some sort could be made for the Texas law, based on some combination of cost and the possibility that an impersonal institution will sometimes avoid mistakes that an emotionally-involved relative would make." But, he adds, "What I can't figure out is how someone could be genuinely outraged about the Schiavo case but not about the Hudson and Nikolouzos cases."

The specifics of each case are different, but the central issue remains the same: whether the state should be able to sanction the removal of a human being from life support.

The fact that President Bush signed into law in Texas a bill that gives health care providers the right to end human life is then certainly relevant, given his decision to sign the Schiavo legislation and his rhetoric concerning a "presumption in favor of life." But do Hudson and Nikolouzos show up in stories about Schiavo? Very, very rarely. A Google News search of "Sun Hudson" and "Schiavo" returns only ten results, mostly from small outlets, and "Nikolouzos" and "Schiavo" returns only five results.

That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise since coverage of the Schiavo case has consistently skewed toward the emotional over the factual. And that has been to the advantage of those who want Schiavo kept alive. Most stories feature dueling quotes from Schiavo's media-savvy parents and her embattled husband, people whose anger over a difficult and emotional issue has been elevated to a national stage. More often than not, the tearful parents get top billing.

Then there are the dueling quotes from grandstanding lawmakers, with Republicans far more vocal and emotional in their appeals than skittish Democrats. (Typical is this comment by Tom DeLay: "Mrs. Schiavo's life is not slipping away – it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism.")

Then there's the heartbreaking photo of Schiavo that has graced many of the web stories on the case, including those of CNN, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post. It shows Schiavo seeming to smile as she receives a kiss from her mother. (According to Schiavo's doctors, it's unlikely that her facial expressions reflect actual feeling.) The choice by news organizations to focus on this one photo from among the many available speaks to their priorities. Those who side with Schiavo's husband and the Florida courts might blame political bias for the choice of photo and the prominence of Schivo's parents – but the harsh truth is that news organizations simply want eyeballs, and the best way to get them is to tug at the readers' and viewers' heartstrings.

Unlike the moralists in Congress, we're not about to take a side on the question of what should happen to Terri Schiavo. It's an incredibly difficult issue for those close to her, and we feel for both her parents and her husband. But the behavior of politicians and the role of the press are another matter entirely. We don't think that newspaper reporters have an obligation to point out every day that federal intervention in a state court case flies in the face of traditional conservatism, or the fact that some of the same people voting for the Schiavo bill voted for Medicare cuts that may well have similar effects as the Texas Futile Care Law. Those points are best left to columnists and commentators speaking from a variety of platforms.

But journalists should at least make an effort to cut through the sensationalism surrounding the case and provide some context. We should hear more about the Futile Care Law, and news outlets should think twice before basing coverage on which side plucked the most heartstrings on any given day. With its performance to date in the Schiavo case, the press is displaying a tell-tale tendency for tabloid-style exploitation in the guise of serious reporting.
Brian Montopoli is a staff writer at CJR Daily.
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