Accuracy in Media

The media’s bias on immigration was on display in the coverage of the “teenager” who got a botched heart-lung transplant. Eventually, she became an “immigrant” and then a “Mexican immigrant.” But she was really an illegal alien smuggled into the United States. The information was initially withheld or played down for obvious reasons. Journalists fear there could be a public backlash to illegal aliens getting medical care in the U.S. and contributing to the soaring cost of health care coverage. This case was even more sensitive because American citizens are on the waiting list for the organs that this illegal alien received.

The New York Times ran a February 21st story about the ethical dilemma in the case, but it wasn’t about an illegal alien getting medical care. It was whether it was proper for Jesica Santillan to get a second set of organs. A separate story by Jeffrey Gettlemen and Lawrence K. Altman waited until the 26th paragraph to reveal that her family had left illegally from Mexico and that relatives had paid a smuggler to get them into the U.S. They settled near hospitals that specialized in the kind of operation the girl needed. Times reporter Denise Grady said merely that “Ms. Santillan’s family moved from Mexico to North Carolina three years ago?”

We saw the same kind of coverage in the Washington Post, which reported that Santillan’s family had “brought her from Mexico to the United States for the potentially lifesaving operation?” A February 23rd Post story by Rob Stein repeatedly emphasized that she was just a “teenager,” without any reference to her nationality. Later in the story, he mentioned that the parents had “smuggled the family” into the U.S. but never used the term “illegal.”

A report on CBS News said, “She is from a small town near Guadalajara, Mexico, and moved to North Carolina with her family several years ago, believing that she would have a better chance for a transplant if she were in the U.S.” CBS made the whole thing sound legal, proper and humanitarian.

A North Carolina businessman raised funds to pay for her operation because federal law prohibits government reimbursement for organ-transplant-related services for “undocumented aliens.” There is no dispute that she got organs?two sets of organs?that could have gone to an American citizen. It appears she got special treatment. As noted in the press, she got the second set of organs in “amazingly fast” time, in less than two weeks, after spending three years on a waiting list to get the first set.

It was news to many people that non-U.S. citizens can be placed on waiting lists for transplants and get the same priority as American citizens. A spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing was quoted by the Associated Press as saying they cannot perform more than 5 percent of their transplants on noncitizens. This figure has been featured in many reports. But, which handles questions about organ transplants and donations, says the figure is actually ten percent. Some people may wonder why any non-citizens are entitled to this service.

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