Did Televised Assisted-Suicide Improve Media Coverage of Euthanasia?

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, MD, 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.