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On Schiavo case, TV struggles for balance

Published April 1, 2005

[Times photo: Kathleen Flynn]
The media focus on a speaker outside Hospice House Woodside on Thursday.

TV news outlets had plenty of images to help tell the story of Terri Schiavo's death on Thursday.

But most of them - the tearful family members, talkative advocates, the protesters, the signs, shrines and flowers, supported Mrs. Schiavo's parents, the Schindlers. As they have throughout the 13-day vigil, they opposed - in ways that made compelling television - husband Michael Schaivo and his decision to remove the feeding tube that kept her alive.

Michael Schaivo was invisible, and so were his supporters.

The fight over Mrs. Schiavo split the country and made its way to the White House and Congress. National polls indicated that most Americans would have done as Michael Schaivo did. But the case also showed how tough it is to depict that divide on television.

Forrest Carr, news director at Tampa's WFLA-Ch. 8, said he struggled to show balance. Viewers noticed when the pictures favored one side, he said.

"We've begged people to talk to us. There are no protesters out there for Michael," Carr said. "You've got to take steps not to let the protests dominate the coverage."

Carr said through the debate, he has been pleased when reporters delivered stories away from the protests, talking to families who have made similar life and death decisions far from the media glare. Talking with others who have been there, investigating the law and the ethics at work, helps provide balance, he said.

"It's been really hard," said WTSP-Ch. 10 general manager Sam Rosenwasser. "We've had to make phone calls, do what we could, to find someone to talk on the other side. We don't want to create the news, you just want to report, and it's tough. You want to be responsive and report both sides of the story, but you can't if that other side isn't there."

What viewers saw, as TV delivered what it could live and largely unedited, was a blur of hastily convened news conferences, protesters and political sound bites. There even were aerial shots eerily reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson chase as news helicopters followed the white van carrying Mrs. Schiavo's body to the Medical Examiner's Office.

President Bush, while offering condolences to "both families" Thursday, made his personal pro-Schindler feelings plain, adding, "The strong have a duty to protect the weak."

Still, TV tried to provide balance.

MSNBC had a new interview with Michael Schiavo's brother. WFTS-Ch. 28 stationed reporter Don Germaise in front of Schiavo's Clearwater home, talking to his older brother and showing a few supporters placing signs on the lawn. WTVT-Ch. 13 held a half-hour call-in show after the noon news with an attorney and grief counselor to take questions. Stations presented prepared packages documenting Terri Schiavo's life, and the court battles since she fell into what several doctors said was a permanent vegetative state.

Most everyone carried the news conference of Michael Schiavo's attorney, George Felos, who spoke quietly of Mrs. Schaivo's final moments.

His calm demeanor was quite a contrast with the earlier press conference of a nearly tearful Randall Terry, a seasoned activist who fought the removal of the feeding tube. With the cameras focused on him less than an hour after Mrs. Schaivo's death was announced, Terry choked up as he addressed cameras.

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said Mrs. Schiavo's case will continue to pose challenges to journalists as the debate over her case rages on. Staying neutral and balanced will continue to be hard, he said.

"It's difficult, but it's crucial," Toobin said. "I'm extremely aware of the need to reflect both sides in my analysis ... The emotion is one-sided, but the substance is not."

He expects the next chapter, the autopsy, will be no easier.

"The autopsy will be intensely contested," Toobin predicted. "There are people looking to turn the autopsy into an opportunity to say, "I told you so,' on both sides."

[Last modified April 1, 2005, 08:50:42]

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