Did Televised Assisted-Suicide Improve Media Coverage of Euthanasia?

Content analysis of media reporting on Dr. Kevorkian

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania analyzed news coverage of a videotaped assisted suicide that was shown on the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes" in November 1998.

Jack Kevorkian, M.D., a longtime euthanasia activist, provided the videotape showing himself assisting the suicide of a patient with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease), a debilitating and ultimately fatal central nervous system disorder.

Key Findings

In a report to RWJF on their analysis, the researchers offered the following conclusions:

  • Broadcast of the videotape sparked a large rise in articles that mentioned euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.
  • The increase in coverage, however, did not lead to a broadened discussion of the bioethical or legal issues surrounding Dr. Kevorkian's actions. Instead, the articles overwhelmingly framed Kevorkian's activities as a crime-and-personality story.
  • While some coverage of the philosophical, social and political issues surrounding euthanasia was evident in the period leading up to the broadcast, the focus on Kevorkian's acts as a crime-and-personality story diminished attention to these topics for weeks after the videotape first aired.
  • Prosecutors and defense attorneys far outnumbered other sources — including physicians, nurses, ethicists, patients and advocacy group representatives — that could have provided alternative perspectives on the incident.
  • The findings raise questions about the ability of stories of this nature to push the mainstream press to look beyond the acts of "zealots" to the social context surrounding them.

Funding

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) supported the project with a grant of $24,494 from January to March 1999.