Frontline 's "The Last Abortion Clinic": What's Fair in a Video World?


CSJ-08-0005.0 This case takes students behind the scenes into the making of a news documentary for Frontline , produced at the PBS affiliate in Boston (WGBH). The case tells the story of the making of “The Last Abortion Clinic,” a 2005 documentary by producer Raney Aronson and her team. The documentary combined a legal story (developments in the abortion debate since Roe v. Wade ) with personal stories—interviews with women in clinics who had confronted the abortion question in their own lives. It focused on the state of Mississippi, which had only one abortion clinic remaining. The case chronicles the evolution of a documentary from idea to finished form. Along the way, it highlights numerous editorial, logistical and ethical decisions Aronson faced in her quest to tell fairly a complex and value-laden story.

This case features video from the documentary itself. Students are asked to screen and evaluate several film clips in order to determine whether a particular scene belongs in the final film, and if so, where. Students will learn about the respective roles in any Frontline documentary of the executive producer, the executive editor and the production team. They will gain an understanding of what goes into choosing a news documentary topic, selecting those to interview, planning where to film, and deciding which of the hundred hours of tape should be used in the one-hour film. Special attention is paid to the definition of “fair” in a video context.

The case study can be used in a class on editorial decision-making, on broadcast media, on documentary film making or on public service broadcasting.


This case was written by Kirsten Lundberg, Director, for the Knight Case Studies Initiative, Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University. The faculty sponsor was Professor Michael Shapiro. The Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning (CCNMTL) produced the multimedia, online product. Josh Stanley was the project coordinator, and Zarina Mustapha was the website designer. Funding was provided by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation .

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