Flaws in new LATimes abortion piece revealed -- by old LATimes study

Whoaaa. This article in the Los Angeles Times on the "abortion wars." So much bias and tagging and cherry-picking.

If only there were some guide to help us spot the various ploys. Oh, wait, there is one -- from the L.A. Times itself.

It's a four-part study of media bias and abortion written by the late David Shaw of the Times, back in 1990. His 18-month study marked several ways that media push the abortion cause rather than just report. (Thanks to tmatt for finding this study.)

But first, the new Times story, which ran on Sunday. It's mainly about the resurgent pro-life movement, which has scored several legal victories in several states. Among the new laws are a requirement for abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and making abortion clinics conform to the same "stringent" requirements as hospitals. Some states also require pre-abortion ultrasounds or ban abortion clauses for government insurance.

From there, the story centers on Texas and especially Louisiana. The basic enemy, unsurprisingly, is that evil axis -- religion and conservatism:

A conservative juggernaut has sprung to life here along the Gulf of Mexico, where Bayou State politics work hand-in-hand with Christian churches, where some conservative pastors condemn abortion as a sin and tell parishioners that voting for a Democrat is too.
Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal has been so consistent in his opposition to abortion that the state is celebrated as the most "pro-life" in the country by Americans United for Life. The antiabortion lobby's annual scorecards are closely watched by legislators here.
"Abortion until recently was not a front-burner issue in Louisiana," said JP Morrell, a Democratic state senator. "Religious groups have made it a front-burner issue. The grass-roots movement here is as organized and effective as anything you've ever seen."

Let's note in passing who gets the direct quote here: not the Republican governor, who favors the movement, but a Democratic state senator who opposes it. But let's move on, because that one snippet echoes much in Shaw's study.

From the "highlights" section of the study:

Abortion opponents are often described as "conservatives"; abortion-rights supporters are rarely labeled as "liberals." Abortion opponents are sometimes identified as Catholics (or fundamentalist Christians), even when their religion is not demonstrably relevant to a given story; abortion-rights advocates are rarely identified by religion. Abortion opponents are often described as "militant" or "strident"; such characterizations are seldom used to describe abortion-rights advocates, many of whom can also be militant or strident -- or both.

OK, the Sunday Times story doesn't say "militant" or "strident"; it merely calls the Louisiana movement a "conservative juggernaut." The "conservative" tag appears three times in the story; "liberal," zero.

Among pro-lifers, Christians are mentioned twice (once along with "fundamentalist"). Among abortion backers, no religion is mentioned (with one exception, which we'll discuss later). This despite the fact that about 80 percent of all Louisianans are Christian.

If you’ve been reading alertly (of course you have), you’ve noticed my own labeling: "pro-life" versus "pro-choice." That's the labeling each group prefers. But that’s not what David Shaw found in 1990. He said the Associated Press and TV networks alike used "pro-choice" far more often than "pro-life" -- a subtle but oft-signaled sign of favoritism.

And little has changed as of the Sunday Times story. There, one side is called "antiabortion" 14 times. We also get "opponents of abortion" and, of course, "abortion foes." The term "pro-life" is used only twice, both in quotes from organizations that are carefully branded "antiabortion."

The opposition? Lots of variety for them: "abortion rights," "abortion doctors," "abortion providers," "abortion services," "access to abortion." What a blessing abortion is, eh? What nice people are those service rights providers of access.

Now, I've just picked out some of the more blatant examples; The Times also has subtler methods of telling you what to think. Here are a few:

* The pro-lifers are "well-funded"; apparently abortion advocates are impoverished.

* Gossip is news, at least when quoting a former Democratic legislator: "I had a Catholic priest say that to vote for a Democrat is a sin — he said that in church." Who was the priest? What does he say for himself? No answer.

* Polls are better if they agree with you. Most people want abortion, at 63 to 29 percent, the Times reports. They're quoting a Pew poll from last year, ignoring a CNN poll this past March. And no wonder: CNN found that 58 percent "espoused viewpoints associated with the pro-life movement; namely, that abortion should be legal under 'few' or 'no' circumstances."

The Times article does have a few good spots -- it should, for the 2,000-plus words it takes up. It specifies that the Guttmacher Institute "supports abortion rights." That's balanced by the Times specifying that the Bioethics Defense Fund "opposes abortion."

There's a nice anomaly in an anecdote of a Democratic state legislator. The newspaper says she supports Obamacare but not abortion. She believes the fetus is a "real life from its conception" and hopes to see abortion outlawed. But whoops, she's from a "religious family." So take it all with a grain o' salt.

I also liked the conversion stories on both sides. In one, a woman was approached by protesters before entering an abortion clinic. After reading their literature, she left and eventually gave birth.

On the other side, a member of a "large, close, extended family of conservative, antiabortion Catholics" was interviewed outside an abortion clinic, holding a sign: "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries."

It's a rare reversal of Shaw's observation -- this time, naming the religion of the pro-choicer, but not that of the pro-lifer. Oh well, the media do love stories of turncoats who've Seen the Light.

But I'd highly recommend downloading the Shaw report yourself, or at least bookmarking it. Read it, then open it in a separate tab or window whenever you see an article on abortion.

And as you read, consider how little has changed since the study came out in 1990.

Picture:  Detail from "Views of a Foetus in the Womb " (c. 1510 - 1512), a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. Detail. Uploaded by Jossifresco to Wikimedia.com (Public Domain Mark 1.0).

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