Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Terri Schiavo's Challenge to the Media ...

Terri Schiavo case fuels blogging storm

(MSNBC / AP) - In cyberspace, where anybody who cares to listen can hear you scream, the question of whether Terri Schiavo should live or die has spawned an endless shouting match.
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At the moment, the hot topic of discourse in America is Terri Schiavo, a 41-year-old Florida woman whose plight has attracted the attention and concern of the entire country.

I won't go into the facts of the case. One can't turn anywhere, really, in any medium, and not have close to hand a thick file of names, dates, doctors' recommendations and judges' rulings ... far more comprehensive than I could present in this forum.

But how shall we, the media, report on those facts? In many ways, it's just another story. But that being said, the story is unique unto itself, and brings with it many unique challenges to those of us who would report that story ... and that, really, is just like all the stories we are called upon to report.

First, we must assume nothing. We must present our stories with enough background detail to allow a reader, addressing this topic for the first time, to know what this is about, and how this story has developed. Names and titles of the principals - Schiavo, her husband, her parents, their main attorneys - are important, of course. A brief synopsis of the arguments of both sides on this issue would help. So would a brief timetable of the past fifteen years of Schiavo's life, her injury and ensuing condition, and the legal and legislative actions that have become a part of that life.

Secondly, we must give breaking developments their time at the forefront. Today, for example, the principals mentioned above should be moved down the page to make room for U.S. District Judge Whittemore. And the general arguments made throughout the past fifteen years should be moved down the page, as well, to make room for the arguments being heard in Judge Whittemore's courtroom. Over the weekend, it was the turn of Congressional leaders in Washington and President George Bush to move to the forefront, as they moved to intervene in the Florida case and place it in the jurisdiction of the federal judiciary.

Anything else? Yes, give each side of the issue a chance to contribute to your report. You don't want to devote an overwhelming majority of your space to one side or the other ... but there are times when one side will have more words, more column-inches than the other. The argument made by some outside the media that there must be an exact, '50/50' split between the two sides is not always practical ... and sometimes it's more than a little ludicrous. Think about it ... when someone has made a compelling presentation to you - a sermon, a sales pitch, a plea for assistance, whatever - was it the number of words that swayed you, or the quality of those words.

And a sub-point to that. Whenever you can, go outside the pool of spokesmen representing one side or the other. One of the most interesting sidebars to the Schiavo story I've encountered today was a piece on National Public Radio (KOCV-FM, Odessa College), which featured an extended conversation with the man who was appointed Schiavo's guardian ad litum by the State of Florida. For several minutes, the host of "NPR All Things Considered" spoke, not to the husband's advocate, not to the parents' advocate, but to Terri's advocate - the man appointed by the State of Florida two years ago to immerse himself in the case, to study the situation (more than 30,000 pages, then) and to be at Terri's side, legally and literally. I got more out of that ten minutes then I would have gotten listening all night to the lawyers, the politicians and the pundits.

One last point, tighten the chin strap of your helmet, and hunker down. In stories like these, where emotion is as much a part of the debate as reason, reports in the media will be carefully screened and either praised (if they present facts agreeable to the reviewer) or condemned (if they don't). Really, the only middle ground to be had when covering a story/debate such as this is if the complaints come from BOTH sides ... that's one pretty good indicator you're presenting a fair and impartial report of the news.

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