Ultra-soft ultrasound in LA Times

I don't mean to shock you, but I'm about to accuse the Los Angeles Times of giving some soft news coverage -- almost cheerleading -- to an evangelical anti-abortion activist. Seriously.

Just to be clear, my charge relates to a single story, so no need to fear: The Times' well-earned renown as a publication that leans left on social issues (examples here, here and here) shall remain firmly intact. Former editor John Carroll's famous 2003 memo on bias remains relevant, in way too many cases.

But a profile on an anti-abortion Superman who drives his motor home to poor parts of Los Angeles and saves pregnant women -- physical and spiritual connotation intended -- struck me as straight out of an evangelical press service.

That would be fine, of course, except that the Times is a general circulation newspaper with, one would hope, higher journalistic ideals. The top of this story:

Last year Dave Wilkinson asked God for guidance. He wanted to know what he could do to better fight abortion.

Wilkinson, an evangelical pastor, runs three Ventura County pregnancy clinics that encourage women to choose alternatives to the procedure. He believes the prevalence of abortion is the biggest test Christians face. "It's probably one of the things that American Christians are going to have to stand before God and answer for," Wilkinson said. "He will say, 'You, as Americans, what did you do to fight abortion?'"

Wilkinson, a 55-year-old Simi Valley resident with a gray beard and a calm manner, said God answered his prayers with a directive to "go where the battle is." So last September, he brought his work to Watts.

Every Tuesday since then, Wilkinson and a handful of like-minded Christians have driven into the city in a donated motor home equipped with an ultrasound machine and parked it near the Imperial Courts housing project.

Now, don't get me wrong: I applaud the Times for telling this story and letting the activist speak for himself. It's an interesting, newsworthy angle, and it provides a fair portrayal of a conservative Christian -- something that doesn't always happen in America's elite newspapers.

And, in general, I don't have many problems with the actual content in the story, which does a nice job of putting a real human face on Wilkinson and the women who show up at his mobile clinic. I do wish the reporter had dug a little deeper into Wilkinson's religious background: I'd like to know, for example, if he attended seminary and if he's affiliated with a particular denomination. I'd like to know how God answered his prayer: Was it a feeling? Did God speak to him directly? These type of details seem relevant in a story about religious beliefs. And, even though this isn't GetMedical, I'd like to know what medical expertise Wilkinson and his clinics have to operate this service, and how they have addressed potential liability issues.

But my bigger concern is the lack of any real context or abortion-rights voices in this story. It's 1,139 words, which is longer than most newspaper stories. But I think the Times stopped about 861 words short of what could have been a real meaty story. Expand this decent shell to 2,000 words, and suddenly, there's a chance to redeem a PR-ish feature. Yes, that length is a novel in a dead-tree publication. But it's not unheard of in a paper the caliber of the Times.

To what specifically would I allot those 861 extra words?

Glad you asked.

Mainly, this paragraph on why Wilkinson chose the Imperial Courts housing project demands more in-depth examination:

They come here because Watts is one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, and abortion rates tend to be higher in low-income areas, according to the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, a leading authority on sexual health issues. For four hours, Wilkinson's group offers free pregnancy tests, using the ultrasound to show women images of their fetuses and leading prayer-filled counseling sessions in which they urge the women to keep their unborn babies.

What other options for pregnancy care and reproductive services do women in this neighborhood have? Are community and religious leaders doing enough to help these women, or is Wilkinson's popularity a sign of a deeper problem? Are local leaders pleased with Wilkinson's effort, or do they have concerns about it? Is this pastor proselytizing on the vulnerable or showing love to the downtrodden? What do pastors in that part of the city think?

Answer some of those questions, and this piece gets a whole lot more compelling -- and a whole lot more balanced -- in a hurry.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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