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Does media bias impact opinion polls on Schiavo?

WASHINGTON (BP)–Words and information influence the public’s perception of life-and-death issues, and such appears to be sadly true in the case of Terri Schiavo and her parents, critics of the news media say.

In their coverage and in the opinion polls they have commissioned and reported on, the mainstream news media have been misleading or biased about the efforts to save the life of the brain-damaged Florida woman, some observers say.

The surveys and reports are additional aspects to the storm of activity and controversy centered on Schiavo and her family. Schiavo, 41, has been severely brain damaged since 1990. For years, her parents and her husband have been in a legal struggle over whether she should live or die. While Michael Schiavo says his wife would not want to live in her present state, no written request exists. Her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, deny Michael’s assertion and say they want to take care of her the rest of her life.

Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube was removed March 18. Despite extraordinary efforts by Congress and President Bush, state and federal courts have refused to order the reinsertion of her tube as she draws near death by starvation and dehydration.

The Media Research Center reported the three broadcast network news programs “have tilted” their coverage in ways that favor Michael Schiavo’s position.

Meanwhile, syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin charged ABC News with using a “loaded phrase” in a survey on Terri Schiavo that produced a result the network reported as “broad public disapproval” for government efforts to extend her life. Other polls commissioned by the news media also have used phrases that are in dispute.

In a March 22 report, MRC said its analysis of the evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC between March 17 and 21 provided the following results:

— 60 percent of the soundbites, including comments by reporters, offered Michael Schiavo’s side, while 40 percent presented the Schindlers’ viewpoint. “Not a single story was devoted to a skeptical look at Schiavo and whether he was acting in his wife’s best interests [he has fathered two children by another woman since his wife was stricken], but all three networks ran stories rejecting Mr. and Mrs. Schindler’s view that their daughter could possibly be helped,” MRC reported.

— 59 percent of the soundbites castigated congressional actions to enable Terri Schiavo’s case to be reviewed in federal court. Reporters even criticized Congress in their own words, MRC reported. “Whatever your beliefs, Terri Schiavo and her family deserved better than the way Congress worked this week,” ABC’s Jake Tapper said March 18, MRC reported by way of example.

Malkin wrote March 23, “However you feel about the Terri Schiavo case, one fact is indisputable: The mainstream media (MSM) coverage of the matter has been abysmal. On a fundamental matter of life and death, the MSM heavyweights have proven themselves utterly incapable of reporting fairly.”

She cited an ABC-sponsored poll released March 21 as a prime example. Before asking a question about support or opposition to removing Schiavo’s feeding tube, the survey made these statements: “Schiavo suffered brain damage and has been on life support for 15 years. Doctors say she has no consciousness and her condition is irreversible.”

After hearing this information over the telephone, 63 percent of those polled supported the removal of Schiavo’s tube, according to the survey results.

Malkin cried “foul” at the use of “life support” to describe Schiavo’s condition. “The loaded phrase evokes images of a comatose patient being artificially sustained by myriad machines and pumps and wires,” Malkin wrote. Schiavo’s heart and lungs function without assistance. Some physicians also have disagreed with the assertions she is not conscious and has no hope of improvement.

“Imagine how the poll results might have turned out if ABC News had made clear to participants that Terri is not terminally ill. Not in excruciating pain. Capable of saying ‘Mommy’ and ‘Help me.’ And of ‘getting the feeling she’s falling’ or getting ‘excited,’ in her husband’s own testimony, when her head is not held properly,” Malkin wrote.

Other polls also used questionable phrases.

A CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey issued March 22 reported 56 percent of those polled said the feeding tube should have been disconnected, while 31 percent disagreed and 13 percent did not have an opinion. A CBS News poll released March 23 showed 61 percent agreed with removing the tube, while 28 percent were opposed and 11 percent had no opinion.

Both surveys, however, described Schiavo as being in a “persistent vegetative state.”

Some neurologists other than those whose diagnosis was accepted by the Florida judge overseeing the case contend Schiavo is not in a “persistent vegetative state.”

William Hammesfahr, who was nominated in 1999 for a Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology, told the Florida Baptist Witness Schiavo is not in PVS and could improve with therapy. At least 50 doctors he knows of have said she is not in PVS or a coma, Hammesfahr said.

William Cheshire, a neurologist at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Fla., evaluated Schiavo’s condition on behalf of the state of Florida and said she may be in a “minimally conscious state” instead of PVS, The Washington Post reported March 24. The Post reported Cheshire is associated with the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, a suburban Chicago organization founded by Christian bioethicists.

The Post did not report two days earlier, however, on the views or an affiliation of Ronald Cranford, a University of Minneapolis neurology professor whose assertion Schiavo is in PVS has been accepted by the judge in the case.

Cranford, a witness for Michael Schiavo, is “one of the most outspoken advocates of the ‘right to die’ movement and of physician-assisted suicide in the U.S. today,” wrote Robert Johansen, a Roman Catholic priest in the diocese of Kalamazoo, Mich., in a March 16 National Review commentary.

Cranford “has advocated the starvation of Alzheimer’s patients,” Johansen said. “He has described PVS patients as indistinguishable from other forms of animal life. He has said that PVS patients and others with brain impairment lack personhood and should have no constitutional rights.”

Cranford is on the board of directors for Choice in Dying, formerly known as the Euthanasia Society of America, according to the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.