Much Schiavo Coverage Brain Dead

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Coverage of the controversial Terri Schiavo case in some of the nation's top newspapers was full of inaccuracies and misinformation, according to a study just published in the journal Neurology.

Schiavo, who died in March 2005, suffered a brain injury that left her in a vegetative state for 15 years. She was at the center of a public court battle among members of her family who disagreed over whether her feeding tube should be removed. A judge ultimately decided to allow the tube to be removed, and she died 13 days later at the age of 41.

A team of neuroethicists led by Éric Racine of the Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal examined coverage of the case in four major daily newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Tampa Tribune and the St. Petersburg Times. The researchers analyzed 1,141 relevant articles published between 1990 and 2005.

As Dr. James Barnett writes in an accompanying editorial, they found that articles “frequently contained scientific inaccuracies,” as well as “inaccurate prognoses” and “an inability to distinguish expert opinion from diatribe.”

An amazing 21 percent of the articles reported that Schiavo “might improve,” which was a medical impossibility. Seven percent even said she “might recover.” Fewer than 1 percent included a medical description of a persistent vegetative state.

“The most serious media shortcoming was squandering the opportunity to educate the public about disorders of consciousness and end-of-life care,” Barnet writes. “During March 2005, they had the public’s rapt attention and could have provided the necessary background for people to understand these complex issues more clearly.” Instead, “many treated the dispute as entertainment.”

Today, of course, newspapers themselves are on life support. If coverage of the Schiavo case was this sloppy, how poor will it be when a similar event arises and when many reporters who specialize in health, medicine or science have been laid off?

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