Poynter think piece proclaims: No need for 'balance' in abortion news reporting


I've been thinking about this weekend think piece for quite some time.

The key to this post, according to journalists with whom I have discussed the topic, is that the think piece in question -- "New study shows why it's so hard to get abortion coverage right" -- was:

(a) Published on the Poynter.org website (a crucial brand name in mainstream journalism).

(b) However, it was written by a professional from an advocacy think tank on the issue being discussed, a fact clearly noted in the author bio at the end of the essay.

Thus, readers face a crucial question: To what degree do the contents of the essay speak for Poynter.org and its team? Perhaps this is the first half of a debate, with another piece -- representing the other side -- coming in the future? Then again, perhaps this piece is an endorsed statement (thinking of the newsroom policy ethics and style guide at BuzzFeed) that abortion is now a public debate that, for journalists, has only one side that needs to be covered?

I do not know. Because of my respect for the Poynter Institute and its work, I have been rather puzzled. And cautious.

I will point readers to the new Poynter piece -- in a moment.

First, I want to mention a symbolic statement on this topic from an earlier era. I am referring to the much discussed 2003 memo to Los Angeles Times section editors by John Carroll, the newspaper's executive editor at that time. The memo's subject line was: "Subject: Credibility/abortion." Readers really need to click and see the whole memo (it isn't long) for context. However, here is how it ends.

Apparently the scientific argument for the anti-abortion side is so absurd that we don't need to waste our readers' time with it. 

The reason I'm sending this note to all section editors is that I want everyone to understand how serious I am about purging all political bias from our coverage. We may happen to live in a political atmosphere that is suffused with liberal values (and is unreflective of the nation as a whole), but we are not going to push a liberal agenda in the news pages of the Times. 

I'm no expert on abortion, but I know enough to believe that it presents a profound philosophical, religious and scientific question, and I respect people on both sides of the debate. A newspaper that is intelligent and fair-minded will do the same. 

So what does the article published by Poynter say?

The hook for the essay is work published by the journal Contraception, in which researchers are said to have "interviewed 31 reporters with experience at 75 diverse outlets to examine how journalists experience the process of covering abortion."

"Diverse"? Readers are told:

Participating journalists were recruited through “progressive” and “feminist” listservs. Only a few of the participants described abortion or reproductive health as their primary beat. Most interviewees were white, based in the Northeast, and female, living in households of wide-ranging income.

What are the key issues -- "major obstacles," they are called -- in covering news about abortion? The following is crucial:

The first obstacle addressed is navigating a demand for “both sides” neutrality when reporting on a subject where demonstrably false information is commonly offered as talking points.
“[Editors] are always saying, 'You need to talk to the National Right to Life if you’re going to talk to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund,'” says study participant and reporter 31-year-old Miriam.
A “both sides” framework rewards advocates and activists willing to offer false information as a legitimate opposing perspective. In other words, it favors propaganda.

Read the whole article, please.

Reading that specific passage caused a personal flashback. While working on the religion beat in Denver, I had an important -- for me -- conversation on this subject with a Rocky Mountain News editor. In a previous GetReligion post I described it this way. We were talking about issues of balance, labeling, fairness and accuracy.

I was willing to accept continued use of the "anti-abortion" label for the cultural right, since it was, in the end, accurate in a blunt, literal way. But was it fair, I asked, to keep using that "pro-choice" label for those who backed abortion as a legal option in our society? Why not strive for some kind of literal label that pointed, once again, to the real issue at hand. I suggested the bulky, but accurate, "pro-abortion-rights" label. ...
The bottom line, I said, was that his is an issue that has divided our nation almost right down the middle and, thus, it was our responsibility to be as fair and accurate as possible to both sides. If the nation was divided 50-50 or close to it, then it was in our interests to be as balanced as possible.
The editor's response was blunt: My argument was rooted, she said, in my pro-life bias. One statement hit me so hard that I went back to my desk and wrote it down. The "vehemence" with which I argued for 50-50 coverage, she said, was "evidence of my pro-life bias."

In other words, my call for balanced coverage and respect for activists on both sides of this debate was evidence of bias. It was bad journalism. Her call for one-sided coverage, favoring abortion rights, was evidence of objectivity and a refusal to print propaganda from those who reject what is clearly true.

Now, is that the logic seen in this new essay printed by Poynter.org?

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