Few issues in newspaper style have created as much controversy as the question of what to call the two sides in the culture wars over abortion. As I understand the style that has evolved, newspapers that seek balanced, fair coverage of the two sides have two solid options. First, editors can allow leaders on the two sides to label themselves, choosing words that they believe state their beliefs accurately. Thus, you can have "pro-life" activists arguing with "pro-choice" activists, with these labels usually put inside quote marks when used in this manner in hard-news copy.
A decade or more ago, many journalists tended to put their hands on the linguistic scales and tipped them far to the cultural left, calling one side anti-abortion and the other pro-choice. This was, of course, very unfair and, over time, most mainstream journalists came to realize that. I have always thought that the late David Shaw's majestic series (click here for info) in the Los Angeles Times on media bias in abortion coverage helped open many eyes in many newsrooms that sought to be fair.
So, it is my understanding that, today, journalists are supposed to be using these two terms -- anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights. These labels are not perfect, since it is always easier to be pro-something than anti-something. However, at least both sides are being identified in relation to the real issue that is before the nation, which remains abortion. The only question to be debated is the status of "pro-abortion," a label that may define some on the left, but certainly not those who are not in favor of abortion (as a personal decision), but cannot get themselves to oppose it as a legal option in this society. With the permission of my editors, I often use the pro-life label in my columns to describe those who are consistently pro-life on a wide range of issues as a matter of religious or personal conviction.
I bring this up because of a bizarre headline spotted by GetReligion readers on a few news websites -- such as this television site: "Anti-Abortionist Shot to Death In Front of School."
What, pray tell, is an anti-abortionist? Someone who is opposed to abortionists?
The strange thing is that the wire copy with this headline approaches the matter with standard Associated Press style:
OWOSSO, Mich. (USA Today) -- Police are investigating the connection between two fatal shootings that left an owner of a gravel pit and a anti-abortion activist dead this morning.
The victims have been identified as gravel company owner Michael Fuoss, 61, and abortion-rights opponent James Pouillon, 63, of Owosso. Authorities have a suspect in custody who's been identified as a 33-year-old Owosso man.
Owosso Police Chief Michael Compeau said multiple shots were fired from a passing vehicle at 7:20 a.m. in front of Owosso High School that killed Pouillon, who frequently staged protests in the area. No motive was given for the shootings, but Compeau said he believed Pouillon appeared to be a target.
This strange "anti-abortionist" label showed up in other locations, such as The Daily Mail on the other side of the Atlantic.
As you might expect, some readers have sent us notes comparing what they see as light coverage of this shooting, in comparison with the heavy coverage in May of the murder of Dr. George Tiller, one of America's most famous -- infamous, even -- abortionists.
At the moment, a Google News search for "James Pouillon, abortion" is yielding 2,151 hits in news and commentary sites, which is pretty broad coverage. The New York Times also did it's own story on the shooting, rather than use wire copy. It's a pretty solid report, with good quotes from appropriate voices on both sides. The lede is quite straightforward in its language:
A man who had long opposed abortion and was known nationally among anti-abortion protesters was shot to death Friday morning while staging a protest outside a Michigan high school, the authorities said.
I was, however, struck by these details near the end of the story. If I am not mistaken, Pouillon was in a wheelchair when he was shot.
Monica Migliorino Miller, a Michigan anti-abortion leader who knew Mr. Pouillon, said he wore leg braces and used an oxygen tank and had protested for years outside of various Planned Parenthood offices and abortion clinics in Flint.
"He was just a quiet, unassuming, very committed pro-life activist," Ms. Miller said.
Mr. Pouillon had planned to attend a national protest against abortion at the United States Capitol this weekend, Mr. Newman said. Now organizers are planning a vigil in his memory.
I have not seen a story suggesting that this veteran protester was in any way violent. Another question: The "sign man" was clearly a religious believer, according to local reports. But was he a Catholic? An evangelical?
So far, there also seems to be no evidence of this shooting being part of a larger pattern. Please let us know if you see any follow-up coverage at the national level that is unusually good or bad. Will national media cover the memorial service?
Photo: Video tributes are up at YouTube. Blunt images in some of the posters, of course.