NPR debates American journalism and abortion

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that journalism is in a bit of a crisis right now, when it comes to keeping the public's trust. Truth be told, the public is part of the problem (in my humble opinion).

While many citizens insist that they crave balanced, accurate reporting -- in keeping with the "American" model of the press -- it's been impossible for news executives not to notice the rising numbers for fiercely partisan semi-news personalities on cable, such as the Bill O'Reilly and Rachel Maddow. It seems that many news consumers talk "American," but walk "European," favoring advocacy journalism sites that pretty much tell them what they want to hear.

At the same time, a growing number of journalists are slip-sliding into postmodernity by saying that, since personal objectivity is impossible, there's no need for news organizations to honor the kinds of professional standards that help journalists produce work that is as accurate and balanced as possible.

This is not a religion-beat issue, per se. I know that.

However, anyone who follows media-bias research closely knows that some of the news topics that trouble journalists the most are those that mix religion, politics and culture -- such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay rights, religious liberty, etc., etc. I mean, religious issues even dominated the crucial, concluding sections of the famous New York Times self study and editor Bill Keller's "Assuring Our Credibility" response. Check it out. Again.

So now, it seems that the well-known journalism professor Jay Rosen of New York University and the ombudsman at National Public Radio are engaged in an interesting debate on a hot-button issue that is closely related to this subject. Here's the question they are hashing out: Is NPR being too balanced and too fair in its daily news coverage of the strict new regulations proposed for abortion clinics in Kansas?

Here's the opening of the Edward Schumacher-Matos piece defending NPR:

When Morning Edition reported last week on a hearing in Kansas to impose stricter regulations over abortion clinics, New York University professor Jay Rosen objected on his popular blog that it was "he said, she said" reporting and "one of the lowest forms of journalism in existence."

The regulations, currently held up by a lawsuit, do things such as control operating room size and temperature and could cause two of the state's three abortion clinics to close. Abortion rights opponents justify the rules for what they say is patient safety. Abortion-rights advocates say the regulations aren't necessary and amount to harassment.

"According to this report, NPR has no idea who is right. It cannot provide listeners with any help in sorting through such a dramatic conflict in truth claims," Rosen wrote. "It is obvious to me that there's something else going on here. NPR has, in this case, allowed its desire to escape criticism to overwhelm its journalistic imagination. 'He said, she said' does not serve listeners. It tries to shield NPR from another round of bias attacks."

Reporter Kathy Lohr responded to Rosen thusly:

"I've covered the abortion issue for 20 years. My goal is to be fair and accurate.

"It would be inappropriate to take a position on an issue I'm covering. So, I don't do that, with abortion or other issues."

It's clear that politics is involved in all of this, of course.

Rosen is right that people who oppose abortion are using these kinds of laws as a way of using laws to attack or harass abortion providers -- one step in the ultimate goal of legal protection for the unborn.

In journalism terms, however, that fact is almost beside the point. The larger question is whether harassment is the only purpose of these regulations.

For mainstream journalists, the other side of this story is the question of whether some or even many of these clinics are dangerous and could be made safer if their operators were forced to observe the kinds of strict medical regulations that apply to other medical facilities.

Schumacher-Matos went on to note:

... (While) Lohr's report is not an example of the "lowest form of journalism," I would like to see NPR directly tackle the claims of operating room safety, instead of leaving the matter only to the courts. Such claims are apparently hard to measure, even though the Kansas abortion opponents say they have 2,500 pages of documentation supporting their claims. ...

So to some extent I agree with Rosen. Such a report, however, requires a lengthy investigation. Who knows? It might find that there are indeed safety problems in some abortion clinics. A report earlier this year by Lohr found sordid conditions in a Philadelphia clinic, for example. Or the investigation might find that might find that the 2,500 pages of "proof" contain little of substance and that the safety requirements are silly.

Until then, Lohr's everyday news story is enough to hold us.

Please click here to read Rosen's response at PressThink. I hesitate to cut one chunk of it out of context.

As I read these exchanges, I hear Rosen insisting that he is not opposed to the balanced, accurate reporting -- he simply wanted NPR to get on with the process, gather more facts and then draw logical conclusions. He is also offended by what he sees as NPR's attempts to placate its critics on the moral and cultural right by turning this daily story into an effort at 50-50, balanced, "lower" form of journalism. He wants conclusions, right now.

This troubles me. Why? When talking to conservative critics of the mainstream press, I always emphasize that they cannot judge a media outlet by one story, in isolation from others before and after.

Balance and fairness are best judged as part of a process over a week, month or even a year -- depending on how quickly a story develops. In this case, Rosen is upset about one daily story. Schumacher-Matos is saying, in effect, judge NPR after there has been time to gather the facts on both sides.

As someone who has followed debates about abortion coverage (and media-bias research linked to it) for 30-plus years, here's the bottom line on this skirmish.

Yes, opponents of legalized abortion hope that these regulations make life more difficult for abortion providers.

However, yes, it has been shown that hellish conditions exist in some abortion facilities, conditions that risk the lives of women. The question is whether these abuses are so widespread that state action, via these regulations, is justified. Does anyone doubt that NPR will need to quote experts on both sides during that debate? Does anyone expect conflict to vanish on the interpretation of the evidence gathered during that debate?

Please allow me to mention one more journalistic question that NPR might want to ask, one inspired by exposure to the arguments of groups such as Feminists for Life and Democrats for Life. Here it is: Can anyone imagine state governments allowing clinics to operate under regulations far weaker than those guiding ordinary health facilities if one of the primary functions of these clinics was to perform such a dangerous procedure on men?

The factual question to pursue, since Rosen wants NPR to seek hardcore facts, is whether abortions are performed in clinics guided by weaker regulations than those that govern the work of facilities that perform similar surgeries on men. Similar surgeries? OK, let's say surgeries that, when they go wrong, can cause severe bleeding, infertility and even the death of the adult undergoing the procedure.

Now, when you have gathered your facts about this question -- which is essentially a question about sexism -- will news organizations such as NPR need to quote voices on both sides of the resulting debate? Simply stated: Yes.

IMAGE: The back of a Feminists for Life coffee cup.

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