December 2002

Grant Results

SUMMARY

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.

 See Grant Detail & Contact Information
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THE PROBLEM

A videotaped assisted suicide was shown on the CBS news magazine "60 Minutes" in November 1998.

Jack Kevorkian, M.D., a longtime euthanasia activist, provided the videotape of 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.

CBS's decision to show the videotape received significant publicity, and it sparked debate over the journalistic ethics of covering the actions of "zealots."

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THE PROJECT

Researchers (Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the university's Annenberg School for Communication) sought to determine whether the Kevorkian story served to place the assisted-suicide issue onto the public agenda and how discussions of euthanasia or assisted suicide in the press changed as a result of the broadcast.

Researchers examined newspaper coverage of euthanasia and assisted suicide from mid-October 1998 through mid-January 1999. Using the Lexis-Nexis full-text database of large- and medium-circulation U.S. newspapers, they retrieved all articles that mentioned euthanasia or assisted suicide in the headline or body during that period; the number totaled 1,756 in 129 papers.

From these, they randomly chose 586 articles, approximately 200 from each of three four-week periods.

The project's news analysis served as the centerpiece for two press briefings organized by RWJF in conjunction with the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University (New York, N.Y.) and the Medill School of Journalism of Northwestern University (Chicago, Ill).

Both of these briefings were part of larger RWJF-funded projects at the two schools to inform journalists on health issues (ID#s 035719 and 035718).

Articles appeared in USA Today, U.S. News & World Report and on the Associated Press wire service. In addition, the study's principal investigator published an op-ed piece in the Detroit Free Press, presented the findings at a public conference and participated in two television interviews. (See the Bibliography.)

The study findings were also included in a March 1999 press release and news conference for the Last Acts® communication campaign, an RWJF national program that promotes palliative care as an option for end-of-life care.

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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.

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GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION

Project

Content Analysis of Media Reporting on Dr. Kevorkian

Grantee

Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D. (Philadelphia,  PA)

  • Amount: $ 24,494
    Dates: January 1999 to March 1999
    ID#:  036350

Contact

Arthur L. Caplan, Ph.D.
(215) 898-7136
caplan@mail.med.upenn.edu

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)

Books and Reports

Turow J, Caplan AL and Bracken JS. Domestic 'Zealotry' and Press Discourse: Kevorkian's Euthanasia Incident. Report prepared for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Princeton, N.J., 1999.

Articles

Caplan AL and Turow J. "Media Dropped the Ball on Kevorkian Broadcast." Op-ed piece, Detroit Free Press. February 28, 1999.

Presentations and Testimony

Arthur L. Caplan, "How Did the Media Do in Covering Jack Kevorkian?" at the University of Michigan School of Journalism, February 22, 1999, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Arthur L. Caplan, "Ethics at the End of Life," at the Michigan Hospital Association Annual Meeting, April 14, 1999, Lansing, Mich.

Arthur L. Caplan, "The Press, Kevorkian and the End-of-Life Debate," at the Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania. (Date unavailable.)

News Conferences and Briefings

Press briefing, first in a series of 12 press briefings in the "Journalists Briefings on Health" project at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University (New York, N.Y.), a program funded by RWJF to inform journalists on health issues (ID# 035719). The briefing included findings of the RWJF-funded study "Content Analysis of Media Reporting on Dr. Kevorkian," (ID# 036350) and other end-of-life topics, New York, N.Y., January 26, 1999. Attended by 100 journalists, students and faculty. Included four panel presentations.

Panels

  • Kathleen M. Foley, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and The Open Society Institute Project on Death in America (New York, N.Y.), "A Doctor's Perspective: 'Death Talk' and Pain Management."
  • Janet Heald Forlini, Americans for Better Care of the Dying (Washington, D.C.), "Pending Legislation on End-of-Life Care."
  • Joseph Turow, Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pa.), "Who Counts: The Message or the Man? The Press, Kevorkian and the End-of-Life Debate."
  • Marilyn Webb, journalist and author of The Good Death: The New American Search to Reshape the End of Life (New York, N.Y.: Bantam 1997), "A Journalist Looks at the Burgeoning Consumer Movement to Change End-of-Life Care."

Press briefing, first in a series of 12 press briefings in the "Medill Health and Medical Briefing Program" at the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University (Chicago, Ill.), a program funded by RJWF to inform journalists on health issues (ID# 035718). The briefing included findings from the RWJF-funded study "Content Analysis of Media Reporting on Dr. Kevorkian" (ID# 036350) and other end-of-life topics, Chicago, Ill., February 22, 1999. Attended by approximately 40 journalists and writers, and included three panel presentations.

Panels

  • Arthur L. Caplan, Center for Bioethics, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, Pa.), keynote presentation on "The Press, Kevorkian, and the End-of-Life Debate."
  • Lawrence Gostin, Public Health and Law Program, Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.) and Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, Md.), speaking on court decisions and public policy related to the "right to die."
  • Susan Tolle, Center for Ethics in Health Care at Oregon Health Sciences University (Portland, Ore.), on developments following Oregon's 1994 referendum expanding the right to die.

Print Coverage

"Journalists, Legal, Medical Experts Debate Media's Role in Issue," on the Associated Press State and Local Wire, February 22, 1999.

"CBS Plans Suicide Follow-up: Network to Look at Issues Surrounding Youk Death," in The Detroit News, February 23, 1999.

"Dancing with Dr. Death," in U.S. News & World Report, March 22, 1999.

"Kevorkian Flap Misses Point of Debate," in USA Today, April 15, 1999.

"Why Pay for Costly Care If We Can Kill the Patients?" in The Sentinel, Carlyle, Pa., March 17, 1999.

Radio Coverage

"Judge and Jury," includes interview with Arthur Caplan on media coverage of the Dr. Kevorkian assisted suicide and airing of the video of the suicide by CBS on "60 Minutes," MSNBC, March 2, 1999.

"On the Media," includes interview with Arthur Caplan on the Dr. Kevorkian assisted suicide and airing of the video of the suicide by CBS on "60 Minutes," Public Broadcasting Service, March 28, 1999.

World Wide Web Coverage

www.medill.northwestern.edu includes an archive of published news articles written by faculty and students in the Medill School of Journalism. Chicago, Ill.: Northwestern University.

www.journalism.columbia.edu includes an archive of programs at the Graduate School of Journalism of Columbia University. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University.

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Report prepared by: Jan Hempel
Reviewed by: Janet Spencer King
Reviewed by: Robert Narus
Reviewed by: Richard Camer
Program Officer: Stuart M. Schear