Euthanasia in the Media: Journalists' Values, Media Ethics and "Public Square" Messages

By Somerville, Margaret A. | Humane Health Care International, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Euthanasia in the Media: Journalists' Values, Media Ethics and "Public Square" Messages


Somerville, Margaret A., Humane Health Care International


Correspondence and reprint requests: Margaret A. Somerville, McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, 3690 Peel Street, Montreal, Quebec H3A 1W9, Canada.

The euthanasia debate, aspects of which I have addressed previously in the pages of this journal, (1) continues to expand in countries comparable to Canada. Most notably this has occurred in Australia with the legalization of euthanasia in the Northern Territory, and in the United States, where that country's Supreme Court will soon hear cases on the issue of physician-assisted suicide. The large amount of media coverage of euthanasia reflects this expansion. Consequently, it is important to add to the list of the questions we need to ask concerning euthanasia, (2) one more, namely, "What impact will the personal values of journalists, the principles of media ethics, and the form and content of the messages received by the public have on the euthanasia debate?"

Media and the Societal Paradigm

In Canada and other postmodern secular Western democracies (often called "media societies"), people react differently when they are simply aware of an issue such as euthanasia, than they do when they are exposed to intensive media discussions of it. Somehow an event perceived through the media, especially television, is experienced as more real and more credible than the same event in real life. "Reality" at a distance has become authentic reality and "real" reality has lost its value until it is authenticated through the media. In this "mediatization" of societal issues, we see issues only or mainly as they are presented by these agencies.

We are the first generation for whom debates on societal issues, such as euthanasia, are not carried out face to face and in person. Our public square is the square box of television. The "mediatization" of these debates deeply affects the "shared story" that we create through our dialogue, and on which we base our societal paradigm--the store of values, attitudes, beliefs, commitments and myths that informs our collective life and helps to give our individual lives meaning. Creating our "shared story" through the media may alter the balance between its various components. For example, we may engage in too much "death talk" and too little "life talk," in part because we are most attracted to that which we most fear, and the modern media provides an almost infinite opportunity to indulge our fear-attraction reaction to death.

On the whole it does not make "good" television to have all participants in a debate agree, hence producers choose participants who hold polarized views and are primed to disagree with each other. Often too, media research assistants, who screen potential participants, are young "small l" liberals--civil libertarians and staunch defenders of personal autonomy--a combination that can cause them, even inadvertently, to identify with persons with a prochoice value base, especially in such issues as euthanasia and abortion. And senior journalists seem to have the same proclivity if we judge by the reporting on the Latimer case. Most journalists identified with Mr. Latimer and his feelings and not at all with his severely disabled daughter Tracy, whom he killed (3) To what extent did the fact that the journalists were able-bodied affect their perceptions?

Values and Language

Objectivity is an important journalistic value especially when the issue, like euthanasia, provokes deep social tensions. We need to keep in mind that factors, such as the decision as to what is newsworthy or the selection and volume of coverage of related issues, can affect objectivity with respect to the central issue. Thus the quantity of coverage of euthanasia is much greater and its treatment more intense than that, for instance, of palliative care, pain relief or the right to refuse treatment. This variation demonstrates how the media can make an issue visible (or invisible) and can define a "frame" that determines which related issues are given public exposure. …

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