Reading between the soundbites

Monday, 8 March 1999

The word 'euthanasia' comes from the Greek words 'eu' and 'thanatos', which together mean 'a good death'.

IT'S all television's fault. There's a particularly distasteful type of reporting practised around the world today which can best be described as "ping pong" journalism or "How to be an instant reporter". Here's how it works:

First: Find yourself a Serious Issue which some poor sods - usually a team of dedicated, highly-qualified people - have spent months or years researching, conceiving, and turning into a proposal which they hope will better the lives of countless people around the world.

Second: Skim the summary of the proposal for words which can be transmogrified into soundbites. (NB: Actual reading of the proposal or supporting literature is not only not required but is actually frowned upon.)

Third: Take the most sensational soundbites, quote them out of context, and use as the basis for your report.

Fourth: Find an instant expert who is opposed to the proposal. Give the instant expert equal time to trash the proposal in the interests of "objectivity".

Finally: Sit back and relax for the next several months. Your instant expert can be relied upon to keep the level of the discussion at the most crudely emotive level possible. If you're lucky, your viewer or reader might never discover that this is a serious issue that seeks to improve their well-being and is really not at all sensational.

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Case in point: A report out of Durban last week kicks off by saying "Plans by the government to give all doctors 'a licence to kill' terminally ill patients who request it are at an advanced stage."

Woooweeee! Licence to Kill! Oh baby, I can feel my ratings soaring already! What a soundbite! What a headline!

But get into the second paragraph and it suddenly changes into a report of a workshop that has taken place after a law commission survey polled thousands of doctors on the subject of euthanasia. Thousands? What did these thousands feel about the issue? Did they support it? Were they against it? What did their patients feel about it? I didn't get answers to any of those questions because it was ping pong time. Three members of a US-based organisation calling themselves "Doctors for Life" attended the Durban conference and - surprise! - they're against euthanasia.

Now this really gets me ticked off. Here you have three jokers with too much money to have real jobs and so spend time zipping over to Third World countries to mess with our democratic processes. And they call themselves "Doctors for Life" - the subtext there is that everyone else is "Doctors against Life" or "Doctors for Death". We do not ask them what their constituency is. We do not ask them where their funding comes from. We do not bother to ask them why their "pro life" stance normally includes rabid support for the death penalty. But we still give these clowns credibility by blindly assuming their opinions count for something.

The Durban report merrily quotes a Brian Johnson, "California Commissioner on Ageing", as saying euthanasia simply meant "the doctor kills the patient". Hello? Can we get real here please? We don't ask thousands of surveyed South African doctors what they think, but we quote one troublesome twit who doesn't bother to inform us that his State of California is now discussing legislation (tabled on March 2) to legalise euthanasia.

The California initiative follows the success of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act. A report in the New England Journal of Medicine says 15 terminally ill people have died under Oregon's assisted suicide law since it came into operation on October 27, 1997. "Many people feared that if physician-assisted suicide was legalised, it would be disproportionately chosen by or forced on terminally ill patients who were poor, uneducated, uninsured, or fearful of the financial consequences of their illness. In our study of physician-assisted suicides in Oregon in 1998, we found no evidence to support these fears," the report said.

Primary health care initiatives by our present government have saved more lives than all of the political rhetoric from "experts" funded by religious fundamentalists. These guys are not about saving lives. It's all about your right to choose - what you read, what you believe, whether you believe, and how you would like to die.

When someone tries to mess with your right to choose, start getting worried.