The Schiavo Case: Are mass media to be blamed?

    MONTREAL, Aug. 6 /CNW Telbec/ - In 1990, Theresa Schiavo, an American
citizen, had a cardiac arrest that caused irreversible brain damage which led
to a persistent vegetative state diagnosis. A few years later, this diagnosis
became a source of conflict over the interruption of artificial nutrition. The
"Schiavo Case" was widely discussed from a medical, ethical and social
standpoint in the United States and elsewhere. In an article to be published
in the September 23 issue of Neurology, the renowned journal of the American
Academy of Neurology, and available online today, a team of bioethicists
composed of Dr. Eric Racine of the Institut de recherches cliniques de
Montréal (IRCM) and experts from Stanford University, in California, and the
University of British Columbia examines the media coverage featuring this
famous case.
    The study reviewed American daily newspapers that were most prolific
about this story: the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Tampa Tribune
and the St. Petersburg Times. A total of 1 141 articles and over 400 letters
to the editor were analyzed. Never before had the media coverage of such a
clinical case been studied so extensively. The accuracy and the nature of the
statements on Terri Schiavo's neurological condition, her behaviours, her
behavioural repertoire, her prognosis and the withdrawal of treatment were
examined. "In the course of our research, we were surprised by the amount of
medical inaccuracies that these newspapers had published, said Dr. Racine.
Some journalists even wrote about Mrs. Schiavo's reactions to specific words
or expressions supposedly showing that she was conscious." More than
scientific and medical information, the legal, political and ethical
dimensions made the headlines.
    Only 1% of the articles examined gave a definition of the "persistent
vegetative state," an essential concept to understand the issues at stake. The
persistent vegetative state is an established neurological condition
characterized by severe lesions to the cerebral cortex, which eliminate higher
functions: inability to communicate, absence of memory, absence of pain, etc.
However, the brain stem responsible for vital functions is not damaged, which
accounts for the patients' reflexes and their ability to breathe and swallow
independently. Despite the fact that Terri Schiavo's medical condition did not
allow any reasonable hope of recovery, a fifth of all articles (21%) contained
statements according to which her condition would improve. "Our observations
show that the press capitalized on the controversy to a large extent, and
selling copies mattered more than delivering scientific information. Media
coverage sustained myths and false hopes," explains Eric Racine.
    The Neurology article provides an objective measure of misinformation,
which underlined that the information available to the media had limitations.
"The public debate surrounding this case showed that the medical, ethical and
legal consensuses on the legitimacy of the withdrawal of treatment in
accordance to a patient's will were challenged." In fact, Racine points out
that while in the 60's and 70's people mostly rallied over the right to refuse
treatment, an opposite pressure was applied in the Schiavo Case by relatives
and public opinion. "This case is quite original because it reveals the
emergence of a pro-life social stream, a trend that has now reached Canada,"
adds the researcher.
    For their misunderstanding of the subject matter or their bias, are
journalists to be blamed? Mass media have become a space of complex social
interaction where the public takes its information and reacts to it. However,
Internet and the media cannot replace official sources, be they medical, legal
or political. In order to improve the quality of the information that is
relayed to the public, families and key-actors, specialists must adopt
strategies that will take into account the limitations identified in the media
coverage of the Schiavo Case. Such ethical and medical debates would certainly
benefit from information that is both more accurate and more accessible to the

    Reference: Eric Racine, Rakesh Amaram, Matthew Seidler, Marta Karczewska,
 Judy Illes. (2008) Media coverage of the persistent vegetative state and
end-of-life decision-making. Neurology, published online August 6, 2008,

    Eric Racine is Director of the Neuroethics Research Unit at the Institut
de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM). He is also Associate Researcher at
Université de Montréal and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Neurology
and Neurosurgery at McGill University. This research was funded by the IRCM,
the National Institutes of Health, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research
Council of Canada, and the Greenwall Foundation.

    Established in 1967, the IRCM ( is recognized as one of
the country's top-performing health research centres. It has a mandate to
understand the causes and mechanisms of diseases in order to find diagnostic
tools and means of prevention and treatment; to train a new generation of
high-level scientists; and to contribute to Québec's socio-economic
development by facilitating the commercial development of new discoveries. The
IRCM has 37 research units and a staff of more than 450.

For further information:

For further information: Eric Racine, PhD, Director of the Neuroethics,
Research Unit,, (514) 987-5723,; Lucette Thériault, Communications
Director,, (514) 987-5535,

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