Brittany Maynard: Much of suicide coverage was gamed and manipulative

Yes, Brittany Maynard killed herself on Saturday. But you'd never know it from much of the coverage. Some media say she simply died, or chose when to die. Some say she "ended her life." Few say she committed suicide.

This blog item is not about the pros and cons of killing yourself when you see no hope. By all accounts, Maynard went through a process of reasoning almost as anguishing as the strokes and headaches that signaled the advance of her brain cancer.

No, this isn't about that at all. It's about what mainstream media do, versus what they're supposed to do. They are supposed to inform us, help us understand. They are not -- despite what you hear and read almost daily -- supposed to tint the content to manipulate you toward their opinion.

So you have the  New York Times saying Maynard "ended her life" and wanted to "choose when to die."

Much of her rationale was cloaked in the "choice" and "rights" language of the pro-gay and pro-abortion movements -- and the Times follows suit:

Ms. Maynard defended her right to decide.

I would not tell anyone else that he or she should choose death with dignity,” she wrote on the CNN website. “My question is: Who has the right to tell me that I don’t deserve this choice?”

The  Times also gives the lion's share to Maynard's thoughts and feelings, as well as her campaign with Compassion & Choices -- which the newspaper calls, not a pro-suicide organization, but an "end-of-life rights advocacy group." It adds a single paragraph acknowledging that "death with dignity" laws are opposed by "many political and religious organizations."

The language is more direct in the Washington Post story, which is twice as long as well. It says she "took lethal drugs prescribed by her physician on Saturday and died."  It later says she decided on "doctor-assisted death."

The Post also reports criticism by National Right to Life, which called Compassion & Choices "ghoulish" for using Maynard's death to pitch for donations. NRTL also asserts that "once the principal (sic) is established, the ‘right’ to be ‘assisted’ expands to a whole panoply of reasons none of which are about terminal illnesses."

NBC News repeats the litany of Maynard "ending her life on her own schedule" -- even saying she took "medicine to end her life," which is something of an oxymoron. The NBC report includes tweets on both sides, but weights them toward the pro-Maynard. It also reports a doctor's accusation that she was being "exploited" by Compassion & Choices. And it links to a seminarian with the Diocese of Raleigh -- himself a patient with incurable brain cancer -- who says life is still worth living, though his comments are cut short.

NBC also quotes Maynard's admirers, of course. Rosie O'Donnell extols having "control over your death, when you've had no control for so long over your illness." Rosie Perez agrees that "people should have the right."

The Guardian serves up the usual lexicon of "doctor-assisted suicide" and says Maynard "planned to die." The newspaper also quotes the director of the Death with Dignity National Center for saying "younger people support death with dignity at really high levels" -- and it lets her get away with that, without citing any surveys to back it up.

The Associated Press uses some of the campaign terms in its obit, which I found in the Boston Globe. AP redundantly says Maynard "ended her life" under an Oregon law that allows people to "end their lives."

The article does, however, mention "physician-assisted suicide" three times. And it includes a quote by an officer with Priests for Life, who says Maynard's death "was a tragedy, hastened by despair and aided by the culture of death invading our country.’’

The Globe also ran a decent bioethics story on the matter, bringing up questions that most of the other stories ignore. Among them: Doctors sometimes err in guessing how long patients will live; people may feel pressured to die and stop being a burden on their families; and prescribing lethal drugs is “fundamentally incompatible with the physician’s role as healer.”

Also interesting: The story cites an online poll by the New England Journal of Medicine, in which 65 percent of the readers opposed "death with dignity" laws.

Some media, like NBC News, add the case of Maggie Karner to their coverage. Karner, who also has brain cancer, has decided to live out what's left of her life and urged Maynard to do the same.  

By now, though, you’ve likely noticed who has been most left out: religious leaders. The ones who visit hospitals and retirement homes all the time. The ones who counsel and comfort the dying, then the bereaved. You'd think they would have some insight into issues of life and death.

Predictably, the only religious leader who got much coverage was the top Vatican ethicist, who  condemned Maynard's suicide. "Condemned" is, of course, an attention-getting headline word -- and it was so used by many media including  USA Today, The Independent, The Telegraph, People, Salon, Minneapolis Star News, CBS News, ABC News, Reuters, UPI, even Design & Trend.

At least some outlets, like The Telegraph, point out that Father Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, the Vatican ethicist, condemned not Carrasco herself but the act of suicide. The Telegraph has him saying that "it says no to our own life and to all that means in relation to our mission in the world and towards those close to us.”

While NBC News links to the post by Philip Johnson, the seminarian with brain cancer, it says little about why Johnson rejected suicide. He says he knows that he will gradually lose control of his body functions and, eventually, his mind:

This terrifies me, but it does not make me any less of a person.  My life means something to me, to God, and to my family and friends, and barring a miraculous recovery, it will continue to mean something long after I am paralyzed in a hospice bed.  My family and friends love me for who I am, not just for the personality traits that will slowly slip away if this tumor progresses and takes my life. 

Granted, the coverage of Brittany Maynard was not about theology but her wish to evade pain and debilitation. But it was also about how you die, what you call dying, and how you regard herself while you're still alive. You can best have that conversation by offering a full range of viewpoints. You cut it short when you game the narrative with carefully chosen catchwords.

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