That shouldn't come as too much of a surprise, since coverage of the Schiavo case has consistently skewed toward the emotional over the factual. And that has been to the advantage for those who want Schiavo kept alive. Most stories feature dueling quotes from Schiavo's media-savvy parents and her embattled husband, people whose anger over a difficult and emotional issue have been elevated to a national stage. More often than not, the tearful parents get top billing. Then there are the dueling quotes from grandstanding lawmakers, with Republicans far more vocal and emotional in their appeals than skittish Democrats. (Typical is this comment by Tom DeLay: "Mrs. Schiavo's life is not slipping away — it is being violently wrenched from her body in an act of medical terrorism.") And, of course, there's the heartbreaking photo of Schiavo that has graced many of the Web stories on the case, including those of CNN, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. It shows Schiavo seeming to smile as she receives a kiss from her mother. (According to Schiavo's doctors, it's unlikely that her facial expressions reflect actual feeling.) The choice by news organizations to focus on this one photo from among the many available speaks to their priorities. Those who side with Schiavo's husband and the Florida courts might blame political bias for the choice of photo and the prominence of Schivo's parents — but the harsh truth is that news organizations simply want eyeballs, and the best way to get them is to tug at readers' and viewers' heartstrings.
But journalists should at least make an effort to cut through the sensationalism and provide some context. We should hear more about the Futile Care Law, and news outlets should think twice before basing coverage on which side plucked the most heartstrings on any given day. With its performance to date in the Schiavo case, the press is displaying a tell-tale tendency for tabloid-style exploitation in the guise of serious reporting.