Window into an abortion clinic

pp6Young master Pulliam previously praised the Los Angeles Times' Stephanie Simon for her Nov. 29 piece that profiled a number of women who had abortions at a clinic in Arkansas. In the amazing story, each woman described the feelings surrounding her abortion in shockingly straightforward ways. If a woman had an abortion because otherwise she wouldn't fit into her wedding dress, for instance, Simon shared her story. If a broke and single college girl didn't relish the idea of abortion but felt she wouldn't be able to provide for a child, that was also shared.

Anyone who has been in an abortion clinic waiting room, worried about being pregnant or been near someone worried about being pregnant can tell you that the way the mainstream media cover pregnancy is woefully inadequate. The only issue that reporters ever cover is the legality or illegality of the practice. But what about the women who end one in four pregnancies in America? In that regard, Stephanie Simon's piece was brilliant, blunt, fair and poignant.

Luckily for us, she wrote about the process of reporting and writing it for the Casey Journalism Center. It's a fascinating look at the evolution of a story:

I hoped to provide an honest, unblinking account of what went on in that clinic on that day -- without spin from pro-choice or pro-life activists.

Of course thanks in part to that spin, few readers will ever consider a story on abortion honest, much less fair. Most readers approach the subject with intense biases, as do most writers. The only antidote I could offer was to try to absorb and record every detail of my day in that clinic. Some scenes might be offensive; some might play into stereotypes; some might seem too intimate to be exposed to a million readers. But I wanted readers to feel as though they were standing alongside me, learning what I learned.

She even witnessed the abortion of a 13-week-old fetus.

My goal was to present a day in the life of a clinic so that even readers entrenched on one side or another of the abortion debate would learn something new about the cause they defend -- or detest. To that end, I chose not to censor material that seemed to favor one side or the other. I didn't count paragraphs in an effort to be "fair"; I didn't include a quote from an anti-abortion activist to "balance" out the quotes from the abortion doctor. I kept telling myself that this wasn't supposed to be an exhaustive analysis of the abortion debate, it was meant to be a window into the world of a clinic on a single day. With my editor's skilled help, I went through my first draft to minimize the use of adjectives, strong verbs, extraneous details -- any devices that bumped up the story's emotional charge.

fetusIt turns out that not all the readers were as pleased with the story as we here at GetReligion were. Pro-choice readers were upset that she described the ultrasound images or included the story of the woman who had an abortion so she could fit into her wedding dress or the one who said abortion was easier than remembering to take birth control pills. Pro-life readers were upset at the abortion doctor's quotes saying his patients were so relieved by their abortions that they felt they'd been "born again." Another reader felt she had promoted abortion by making it seem routine.

The criticism -- as well as positive responses from both sides -- made me realize I had been naive to think the story could be a window; it was actually more like a mirror: People read into it what they wanted, filtering it through their preconceptions. In that sense, the story failed. Yet it did provoke debate and prompt some reader reflection. On such a polarizing topic, that may be the best we reporters can hope for.

I don't agree with Ms. Simon's assessment. Certainly her story was filtered through readers' preconceptions and biases but that's because every story is. And yet an unobstructed window into an abortion clinic is precisely what her story provided. Simply reporting the facts in an unadorned manner, as the Times piece did, is far more illuminating than what normally passes for abortion coverage.

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