Covering abortion: Why do so many journalists use labels from only one side of the debate?

Abortion Anniversary

Once again, it's time to talk about the many symbolic modifiers and verbs that offer clues to how journalists consistently frame coverage of you know what. Consider, for example, the top of that Washington Post news report about Republicans backing away from a strategically timed vote on a bill that would protect unborn children after the 20th week of a pregnancy, at the front door of viability if born prematurely.

Now, you saw how I described that bill -- using the word "protect." It would even be possible to frame this issue by stating that the bill would have "expanded" legal "protection" for the unborn.

That is loaded language and I know that. It's the kind of language that, say, Pope Francis uses in speeches that draw minimal coverage. But that is the language used on one side of the abortion debate, here on Jan. 22nd.

Now, what would the framing language sound like on the opposite side of this debate? Let's look at the top of that Post report:

House Republican leaders abruptly dropped plans late Wednesday to vote on an anti-abortion bill amid a revolt by female GOP lawmakers concerned that the legislation's restrictive language would once again spoil the party's chances of broadening its appeal to women and younger voters.
In recent days, as many as two dozen Republicans had raised concerns with the "Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" that would ban abortions after the 20th week of a pregnancy.

The key word, for the other side, is "restrictive." Also, is it true that female Republicans are united in their approach to this hot-button issue? Perhaps that was supposed to have said this was a revolt by "a few" or maybe "some" female GOP lawmakers"?

What else do we know about the Republicans who backed away from this bill?

The dispute erupted into the open in recent days and once again demonstrated the changing contours of the expanded House Republican caucus. The 246-member caucus is seeing rifts on issues where it once had more unity. That's because there are now more moderate Republicans from swing districts who could face tough reelections in 2016 when more Democratic and independent voters are expected to vote in the presidential election.
Already this month, a large bloc of moderate Republicans voted against a spending bill that would repeal President Obama's changes to immigration policy enacted by executive action.

In this case, the key word -- as always -- is "moderate." This takes us back to that famous -- a sadly unique -- 2005 self study done at The New York Times, entitled "Preserving Our Readers' Trust." Do you remember the key quote?

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.
We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels.

The study stressed that this was a valid journalism issue, one linked to -- wait for it -- a lack of cultural diversity in this most elite and urban of all newsroom.

Both inside and outside the paper, some people feel that we are missing stories because our staff lacks diversity in viewpoints, intellectual grounding and individual backgrounds. We should look for all manner of diversity. We should seek talented journalists who happen to have military experience, who know rural America first hand, who are at home in different faiths.

The newspapers editor at the time, Bill Keller (yes, the man behind the "Kellerism" doctrine), responded by noting (.pdf here):

We must ... be more alert to nuances of language when writing about contentious issues. The committee picked a few examples -- the way the word "moderate" conveys a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme, the misuse of "religious fundamentalists" to describe religious conservatives -- but there are many pitfalls involved when we try to convey complex ideas as simply as possible, on deadline.

The key question, of course, is whether this particular bill is -- in terms of abortion legislation linked to the middle and third trimesters -- actually "radical" or not, in terms of how Americans and even other nations view abortion. In a way, I want to applaud the fact that the Post did include the following quotation in a story that was heavily weighted with pro-abortion-rights labeling and logic.

The impasse prompted Tony Perkins, who leads the conservative Family Research Council, to visit the Capitol Wednesday. ...
He cited "a lot of misconceptions" for causing last-minute disputes with the bill. "We’re talking about a measure that would limit abortions after five months," he said. "America is only one of four nations that allows abortions throughout the entire pregnancy."

Now there is an interesting fact claim, one worth a bit of research. Is that true? What are the other three lands? (Take it away, M.Z. Hemingway.)

The story also ended with an emotional quote from Rep. Trent Franks, the lead sponsor on the bill (after hitting him with some strong labels):

Franks, who is an ardent antiabortion activist, has been known to take an aggressive stance on the issue in the past, often clashing with Democrats opposed to his proposals. But on Wednesday, he took a notably softer tone as he acknowledged the concerns of his colleagues.
"I’ve maintained an open heart, because I realize that all of the people involved have sincere perspectives and have knowledge and experiences and information that I don’t have," he said. "So my heart is open -- my desire here is not a political victory, it is to try to somehow be part of catalyzing an awakening in America to where we finally see the humanity of these little victims and the inhumanity of what’s happening to them."

As always, journalists who are concerned about intellectual and cultural diversity issues related to this subject simply must read the classic Los Angeles Times news series called "Abortion Bias Seeps Into the News," by the late media-beat reporter David Shaw (who was himself was a supporter of abortion rights).

In a 2005 column about Shaw entitled "The Media's Good Cop," E.J. Dionne of the Post noted:

Shaw proved that self-criticism by media institutions enhances their credibility. ...
He was celebrated by many and derided by some for a lengthy 1990 report showing -- conclusively, I think -- that "the news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates."
Shaw showed that abortion rights advocates "are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents." His conclusion "that abortion is essentially a class issue in the United States" and that reporters reflected an upper-middle-class bias applies across a broad range of other questions. I'd argue that this bias points the media to the right on economic issues. What matters here is that Shaw had the essential trait of the best press critics: He could almost always see through his own biases.

Preach it. And, yes, Jan. 22 is always a good day for mainstream journalists to think twice about their labels and the accuracy and balance of their reporting on this hot-button issue.

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