Abortion coverage, part I

On Monday I offered some thoughts about a New York Times piece that looked at a crisis pregnancy center that offers ultrasounds, counseling, diapers, baby clothes and adoption referrals. I had mixed feelings about the piece. It began quite well but fell prey to some of the classic problems reporters have when covering the abortion issue. ignoringIn my view, the pregnancy center was described as trying to trick women into thinking it's an abortion clinic. Its contention that abortion can cause problems, such as breast cancer or depression, was brazenly dismissed.

John Leland, the author of the Times piece, responded to the criticism and I thought it worth bringing out from the comment section. Here's a portion of his response:

A lot of thoughtful commentary on the article and subject matter here.

I'm not sure why it's controversial to describe the crisis pregnancy center as "designed to look and feel like a medical center, not a religion-based organization with an agenda." No one would deny the Christian calling of the staff, nor their mission to reduce abortion. And no one, looking at the bland medical-style signage and waiting room, or reading the name A Woman's Choice, would connect the center to either of these things. It would be remiss not to report this. But I did not think it was the whole story of the center, nor the most important facet, so I discussed it in the middle of the article and let readers make up their own mind how significant it was -- whether it was bait-and-switch, as critics of pregnancy centers assert, or simply strategic marketing, as folks at the NRLC described it.

It's always nice to get a reporters thoughts, and I and others responded to them in the comments thread, but by far the most illuminating comment was posted early on by some man named Terry Mattingly, who shared a memo from Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll. The memo followed a story about a proposed bill that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer. Here it is, in part:

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it.

The memo should be read by all reporters who cover abortion. Of the many dozens of mainstream reporters I know, only about five are pro-life, to my knowledge. But many of those reporters who are not pro-life still know how to cover the issue fairly -- even if they're grumbling while writing the stories.

But it does seem difficult for some reporters to consider all sides of the debate worth discussing or giving proper coverage to. And I'm curious to see if or how this will affect the way media outlets treat Monday's annual rally against abortion.

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