Weekend thinking: If press covered abortion news fairly, would that help restore public trust?

What we have here is an interesting byline on an interesting essay about an essential media-bias subject.

First, the byline: If you know your religion-beat history, you will recognize this name — Peggy Wehmeyer.

Back in the mid-1990s, the late Peter Jennings hired Wehmeyer away from a major station in Dallas to cover religion full time for ABC News. The result, he told me in two interviews, was spectacular in at least two ways.

For starters, the first wave of Wehmeyer reports for the American Agenda feature drew more audience response than any other subject covered on ABC’s World News Tonight. Here’s a piece of one of my “On Religion” columns, quoting Jennings.

"It is ludicrous that we are the only national television network to have a full-time religion reporter," he said. "Every other human endeavor is the subject of continuing coverage by us — politics and cooking, business and foreign policy, sports and sex and entertainment. But religion, which we know from every reasonable yardstick to be a crucial force in the daily life of the world, has so few specialists that they are hardly visible on the page or on the screen."

The second reaction was in the newsroom.

Wehmeyer’s balanced news reports on controversial religion-news topics — especially abortion and LGBT debates — created anger and intense newsroom opposition to her work. I know that because Jennings told me that. He was right to worry that this religion-news experiment would be a success with the public, and with ratings, but would ultimately be torpedoed by ABC staffers.

This brings me to an essay that Wehmeyer just wrote for the Dallas Morning News, which was published with this headline: “If journalists would cover abortion with impartiality, maybe they could gain the trust of Trump voters.”

Here we go again — taking a valid news topic and trying to hook it to Donald Trump. Suffice it to say, lots of pro-life Americans didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. Many voted for third-party candidates. Some were so frustrated they didn’t vote at all.

But I understand the basic fact that Wehmeyer is discussing here: Basically half of the American public has tuned out much of the mainstream press. While Trump screams “fake news,” others are discussing real issues of bias, balance and fairness. That’s what Wehmeyer is doing here, in a passage that is long, but essential:

… Journalists don't need to assist Trump in alienating voters from media sources they should be able to trust.

A simple fix might start with greater balance when it comes to coverage of abortion, one of the most volatile issues in this campaign and the one closest to an evangelical's heart. If evangelicals heard their moral angst over abortion clearly articulated in the media, I'm convinced they'd be far less likely to consider journalists their enemies.

In the volatile years following the Roe vs. Wade decision, I was the first religion reporter in local television, at WFAA-TV in Dallas, and later, the first in network television under ABC News anchorman Peter Jennings.

For 20 years I covered the kinds of Americans who put Trump in the White House. My job was to pay attention to what moves and motivates them, listen to their concerns and give them a fair voice on prime-time news. Jennings recruited me from WFAA because he thought journalists were out of touch with Americans who practice their faith.

With one foot in the heartland and another in a New York City newsroom, I quietly witnessed the disturbing disconnect between my colleagues in New York and Washington and the Americans whose concerns I was charged to cover. I'm afraid things have only gotten worse. It's as if journalists and evangelical Christians belong to two different tribes — on opposite sides of almost every volatile political and social debate.

Jennings wanted to build a bridge over that divide — drawing material and information from experts and insiders on both sides of these debates. And he wanted to land big stories that grabbed attention.

So what happened in his own newsroom?

In the summer of 1995, when Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of Roe vs. Wade, was baptized and famously switched sides to support the rights of the unborn, we got the call. ABC ran our exclusive interview with McCorvey that night.

Response to our reporting on faith and culture in the flyover states was overwhelmingly positive. The stories, Jennings told a Harvard University audience, "elicit a greater response from both audience and colleagues than anything else we've done in recent years."

Over and over our viewers told us they finally felt heard and understood. Inside the newsroom, the "great response" Jennings referred to was one of vocal resistance.

"Are you making these stories up?" producers would ask.

"No. Millions of Americans believe these things," I'd say, handing them the latest Gallup polls on the enormous populations of Americans whose faith shaped their personal and public lives.

"Where do you find these people?" my producers wanted to know.

They were everywhere. Not just in church pews in Peoria, but in small towns, big cities and even at universities like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, where serious Christian scholars told me they stayed in the closet until they could gain tenure.

You get the idea.

Read it all.

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