Dr. Jack Kevorkian knew exactly what he was doing when he videotaped himself killing a severely disabled man this past November and then provided the tape to "60 Minutes." He wanted a trial and its publicity to help promote his views on physician-assisted death to the American people.
Kevorkian got his wish. He was able to use his murder trial at the end of March as a platform for his convictions. With it, he once again hijacked the media, which failed to cover the complexities of physician-assisted death both this time out and back in November, when he released the tape showing himself administering a lethal dose to an ill patient, Thomas Youk.
We know Kevorkian hijacked the media because, with the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, we explored the extensive coverage that followed the death of Youk, who suffered from Lou Gehrig's disease. We examined newspapers, magazines and television for the month following the broadcast. We found 1,400 stories that had appeared about Kevorkian's actions.
A large number of these stories were commentaries - op-ed pieces and editorials - assessing what Kevorkian had done. But, surprisingly, very few of these stories used the opportunity of Youk's death and the subsequent broadcast of it to educate Americans about the critical considerations involved in the push to legalize assisted suicide.
In our content analysis of a sample of the 1,400 stories, we found that Kevorkian's sensational action led the media to focus on the killing and not on his contention that the only real choice for severely disabled patients like Mr. Youk was between physician-assisted death or unbearable pain.
More than just a crime story
Journalists, in their headlines, leads and main stories, did not question that premise. Instead, overwhelmingly, they treated the death of Thomas Youk as a crime story - the police charging Kevorkian with murder - or, less frequently, as a media ethics story - questioning whether "60 Minutes" should have broadcast the tape.
When we looked in depth at the stories that did appear, we found almost none of them discussed the role that hospice might play in making death more bearable. Few mentioned the issue of safeguards so that persons like Youk would not be pressured or coerced into requesting death. There was barely a mention of issues such as the competency of persons to make this decision and who should assess it, the difference between active euthanasia and withdrawing life-maintaining treatment, the ability to make sure that a person could change their mind, what could be done to ensure that patients wanting to die did not feel abandoned and had adequate spiritual support, and what medicine can do to control pain and suffering.
Other views stifled
Most surprising of all was the narrow range of voices that the media used in reporting on Kevorkian's killing of Youk. The overwhelming majority of people quoted in all these stories were lawyers, prosecutors, media executives and Kevorkian himself. Barely 10 percent of the stories had any input from doctors. Barely five percent had any comment from patients, disability groups, religious leaders, nurses or ethicists. Less then 13 percent of the stories reported any sort of ethical objection to physician-assisted suicide. What is fundamentally a moral, spiritual and medical issue was treated as nothing more then a crime story. That is undoubtedly what Jack Kevorkian was hoping for.
The media missed an opportunity to educate all of us about what the real pros and cons are with respect to physician-assisted death.
Joseph Turow, Ph.D., is Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is Trustee Professor and Director of the Center for Bioethics at the Medical Center.
A version of this piece ran in the Detroit Free Press shortly before the Kevorkian murder trail began.
Originally published on April 15, 1999