A week ago today, I tweeted:
One didn’t have to be a prophet to see that the story was on the rise. One only had to watch Mollie Hemingway in action.
For the past few weeks, coverage of the Kermit Gosnell murder trial has been virtually absent in the mainstream media. Noticing the lack of media attention to such an intriguing story, Mollie Hemingway (from the must-read blog Get Religion) began writing about the oversight.
As the details of the trial began to spread through outside channels, the silence of mainstream journalists became less and less excusable. Mollie kept blogging about the journalistic oversight. Then, she extended her protest to Twitter, publicly contacting journalists across the nation and asking them to explain their silence.
On Thursday, Kirsten Powers wrote an Op-Ed for USA Today that claimed American journalists had forgotten what should be on the front page. By Thursday night, Gosnell was trending on Twitter.
Social media outlets were rapidly spreading the news story. I was one of many who blogged about the story - registering my frustration with the way abortion stories are framed by journalists.
Gosnell in the National Spotlight
All day Friday, Kermit Gosnell was the top subject trending on Twitter. Anderson Cooper gave extensive coverage to the story on Friday night. Over the weekend, journalists covered the story of why there hadn’t been a story (which is not as good as actually covering the trial, but it’s a start).
Until the Boston Marathon bombing on Monday afternoon, the Gosnell story was top news across the nation, including CBS. What media critics had called a “blackout” had ended.
How Mollie Hemingway Changed the National Conversation
Without taking away from Kirsten Powers’ article or the thousands who blogged or tweeted about Gosnell, I believe Mollie Hemingway deserves most of the credit for causing respected journalists to give this story a second look. For example, when Sarah Kliff claimed Gosnell was a local crime story without policy implications, Mollie pressed her on the silliness of that excuse. Later, Sarah admitted she’d been wrong. Newsweek followed suit.
So what did Mollie do right? Several things.
1. She was an informed, credible voice on the issue.
Mollie knows the ins and outs of journalism. She also demonstrated an awareness of the issues related to the trial. She was not a blogger passing on conspiracy theories or someone always ranting against media bias on right-wing websites. She had both information and credibility, and she put both to good use. For that reason, people paid attention.
Too often, people are willing to speak before they have built up credibility (e.g., almost all bloggers and people on Twitter). Others are afraid to expend their capital when it is needed (e.g., many Christians academics at secular colleges).
2. She didn’t just complain; she pushed.
Mollie didn’t use Twitter to gripe about the mainstream media. She personally approached stakeholders and journalists.
Twitter allowed Mollie to make personal contact with a reporter, but with lots of people eavesdropping. The effect was that her challenges to the reporter had some pressure and accountability built into them.
In short, she revealed the blind spot of a number of respected journalists, not by slamming them, but by pressing them on their coverage of stories.
3. She devoted time and attention to a serious issue worthy of conversation.
Journalists understand there are many issues related to abortion that are open for debate and discussion. It seems like we most often see stories about the chipping away of access to abortion in red states, or the unwise comments from pro-life politicians on exceptional cases.
Mollie pushed the Gosnell case because it was totally deserving of attention. It was also one of the first cases that puts the conflicted conscience of Americans on abortion (particularly late-term) on full display.
It’s important to have informed, credible people involved in all levels of journalism. These are the people who can gently and firmly expose the blind spots in how journalists direct our national conversation on volatile issues like abortion.
For example, it is sadly ironic that the article in which Sarah Kliff reports on Gosnell’s crimes is tagged “reproductive health.” Why not “human rights?” There is continued bias in the way journalists discuss the issue of abortion (or, in this case, infanticide!).
We’ve got a long way to go. But last week was something of a breakthrough.
Mollie Hemingway shows that, in a world where media coverage is no longer chained to mainstream outlets, one person can make a big difference.