Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:
1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.
About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.
By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).
Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.
2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.
I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”
I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?
The verdict on the first question: The religion angle showed up in bits and pieces, but holy ghosts haunted much of what I read.
For instance, sin made a cameo appearance in this USA Today story (via the Montgomery Advertiser, a Gannett sister paper):
"The sin to me is bringing a child into this world and not taking care of them," said Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison. "The sin for me is that this state does not provide proper care and proper education."
And prayer figured — real quickly — in the Washington Post’s story:
“This bill is about challenging Roe v. Wade and protecting the lives of the unborn because an unborn baby is a person who deserves love and protection,” Alabama state Rep. Terri Collins (R), the sponsor of the bill, said after the vote Tuesday night. “I have prayed my way through this bill. This is the way we get where we want to get eventually.”
Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal included a fleeting reference to God:
Democratic Sen. Vivian Figures assailed the measure as an unconstitutional violation of a woman's right to choose an abortion that would likely saddle the state with costly litigation. "You are playing God," she said to the bill's supporters.
The Los Angeles Times offered a bit more context on the “playing God” accusation:
Over and over, Democratic senators accused Republicans across the aisle of playing God with women’s lives.
“What makes you think you are smarter than God?” Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison asked Chambliss.
He replied: “I believe when God creates a life, a miracle of life, inside the woman's womb, that it's not our place, as humans, to extinguish that life.”
The New York Times used a similar quote, although not the same one — unless the reporters were relying on notes that were not verbatim:
Senator Clyde Chambliss, a Republican and sponsor of the bill in the Senate, defended the omission of those exceptions.
“When God creates the miracle of life inside a woman’s womb,” he said, “it is not our place as human beings to extinguish that life.”
Here’s the deal: Obviously, most readers have some understanding of Alabama and what makes it tick. Often, reporters (including myself) will use buzzwords such as “Bible Belt state” to describe a state such as Alabama. But my point is that some additional facts and context — I’m talking two to three paragraphs — on the religion angle could benefit readers in understanding the place and the underlying climate for passage of a measure such as Alabama’s near-total abortion ban.
As for the second question — related to the fairness of the stories — I was pleased to see that most of what I read seemed to reflect both sides in an evenhanded way, including The Associated Press (where, by the way, I didn’t notice any language tied to the religion angle).
An exception (an ironic one, given the Shaw series of 1990): the Los Angeles Times, which seemed tilted — especially up high — in favor of the bill’s opponents based on the incendiary quote cited first. In a story such as this, wouldn’t it make journalistic sense to quote the winning side first and explain their thinking before moving to the critics?
I’d love feedback from readers on the stories to which I’ve linked as well as others I missed. I’ll acknowledge that I read most of the reports quickly while filing this post on deadline.
What did you see? By all means, leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. Please remember that we are focused on journalism and media issues, not on your personal opinions about the rightness or wrongness of the bill passed.