According to NPR, a pro-choice group has released a new report indicating that many women must drive hundreds of miles to get an abortion.
This is terrible news. End of story.
At least that's the only conclusion one can draw from NPR's one-sided coverage, which quotes four sources — all on the abortion-rights side.
The piece opens with an anecdotal lede:
There's a clinic that's right in Kelsey's town of Sioux Falls, S.D., that performs abortions, but she still drove hours away to get one.
Back in 2015, she was going through a difficult time — recently laid off, had to move suddenly, helping a close family member through some personal struggles — when she found out she was also pregnant.
"I kind of knew right away that this was just not the time or place to have a child. I mentally wasn't ready, financially wasn't ready," she says. "The whole situation really wasn't very good."
When Kelsey decided to end her pregnancy, she found herself navigating a maze of legal restrictions, in a part of the country where providers are few and far between. NPR is not using her last name to protect her privacy.
South Dakota has a 72-hour waiting period for abortions and requires women to meet with their doctor in advance of the procedure. Kelsey, a nurse, had recently started a new job and couldn't take the time off to go to two appointments at the clinic in her city.
She was just a few weeks along, and it was important to her to end the pregnancy early.
Given GetReligion's mission of advocating fair, accurate journalism, I have three questions about NPR's report.
1. Is Kelsey really the best source around whom to base this story?
I've done it a time or two in my own journalism career, but I'm not a big fan of leading into a piece such as this with the exception to the supposed rule. It seems that a source who actually lives hundreds of miles from an abortion clinic would fit the storyline better.
I also don't think it helps the piece's credibility to grant Kelsey anonymity. I understand protecting the identify of certain sources, such as rape victims. But in this case, could NPR not find someone willing to speak on the record?
2. Have the journalists who produced this story ever been to South Dakota?
A little more from the NPR report before I make my point:
Kelsey's story is similar to that of many women across the country, according to a report released Tuesday by the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive health research organization that supports abortion rights.
The report, published in The Lancet Public Health, includes an analysis by Guttmacher researchers of the distances women must travel to obtain abortions in the United States. For 1 in 5 women, the report finds, the trip is more than 40 miles one way.
The trip is often longest for women in rural areas, with some in South Dakota driving more than 330 miles, according to Jonathan Bearak, a senior research scientist with Guttmacher and lead author of the report.
"I think there's an unfortunate extent to which access to abortion is a bit contingent on your ZIP code, and that doesn't need to be the case but it is," he says.
But here's some valuable context: Abortion clinics aren't the only thing in short supply in South Dakota. As I wrote in a story last year, it's a "mostly rural state where normally you can drive for hours and see nothing but cattle, sunflowers and golden fields." When I flew into Sioux Falls last year, I figured I'd grab a bite to eat on the road — I finally ate lunch, er, dinner roughly 400 miles later in Bismarck, N.D.
My point: Maybe South Dakota isn't the best example of having to drive a long to get somewhere (especially when your lead source lives in a city that has what is reportedly missing).
3. Was any thought given — any thought at all — to quoting a pro-life source in this story?
Honk if we've mentioned this before (or a million times before), but the mainstream news media have a real difficult time giving anything close to balanced coverage to the abortion issue. As regular GetReligion readers know all too well, a classic 1990 Los Angeles Times series — written by the late David Shaw — exposed rampant news media bias against pro-life advocates.
Regrettably, the NPR piece is just one more example of that bias. Ironically, the same journalist whose name appears at the top of the latest report has done better in the past and even won praise from GetReligion. Here's hoping that her future stories will be more like the last one we critiqued.