David Shaw

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Talking about the Virginia train wreck: This hot story is about politics, race and (#shush) abortion

Who enjoys reporting and writing stories about abortion?

How about this journalism issue: Who wants to write news stories about abortion that offer information and viewpoints from the many articulate believers on both sides of this issue that has divided America for several decades now? Who wants to write about a subject that so bitterly divides Americans, creating painful puzzles for anyone who studies poll numbers?

Yes, there is a media-bias issue here, one that shows up in any major study of the professionals who work in major newsrooms — especially along the crucial Acela corridor in the bright blue zip codes of the Northeast. The evidence was strong when I did my graduate-school research in the early 1980s. It was still there when the media-beat reporter David Shaw wrote his classic Los Angeles Times series on this topic in 1990 (click here for the whole package). Remember the classic opening of Shaw’s masterwork?

When reporter Susan Okie wrote on Page 1 of the Washington Post last year that advances in the treatment of premature babies could undermine support for the abortion-rights movement, she quickly heard from someone in the movement.

"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."

Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint -- that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.

But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employees at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."

This was the subject that loomed in the background as we recorded this week’s “Crossroads” podcast that focused — no surprise here — on the chaos on the Democratic Party in Virginia. (Click here to tune that in.)

Does anyone remember where that train wreck started? Here’s how I opened my national “On Religion” column this week, with a long and rather complex equation.

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Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

Los Angeles Times' reborn Column One misses the mark on brave abortion doctor story

You do have to wonder at the tone deafness of folks at major newspapers.

Last Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reintroduced its Column One feature, a “showcase for medium-form journalism,” and the piece is on a valiant doctor who flies to Texas to do 50 abortions in 60 hours.

If you had to pick a piece that seemed to have been created in order to anger a respectable share of the population, this was it. Why not a puff piece on Louis Farrakhan? A feel-good piece about workers at the Diablo Canyon (nuclear) Power Plant? Oh, no, that would offend people.

It’s not unusual for the MSM to glamorize abortionists and this feature is a gripping story. But it goes out of its way to portray Texas as some kind of theocratic Republic of Gilead out of The Handmaid’s Tale being serviced by the enlightened medics from the Golden State.

I’ll get to the actual piece in a moment but I had to first point out the LAT’s unusual history in abortion coverage. Please look at this May 23, 2003, memo by then Editor John Carroll that excoriates his staff for allowing in a biased piece about Texas abortionists being mandated to warn their patients about a possible link of abortion to breast cancer.

(One does wonder why the Times has this fixation with Texas being this medieval place with back-alley abortion laws, but I digress). The Carroll memo says, in part:

The apparent bias of the writer and/or the desk reveals itself in the third paragraph, which characterizes such bills in Texas and elsewhere as requiring "so-called counseling of patients." I don't think people on the anti-abortion side would consider it "so-called," a phrase that is loaded with derision.

The story makes a strong case that the link between abortion and breast cancer is widely discounted among researchers, but I wondered as I read it whether somewhere there might exist some credible scientist who believes in it.

Such a person makes no appearance in the story's lengthy passage about the scientific issue. We do quote one of the sponsors of the bill, noting that he "has a professional background in property management." Seldom will you read a cheaper shot than this. Why, if this is germane, wouldn't we point to legislators on the other side who are similarly bereft of scientific credentials?

It is not until the last three paragraphs of the story that we finally surface a professor of biology and endocrinology who believes the abortion/cancer connection is valid. But do we quote him as to why he believes this? No. We quote his political views.

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

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This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

Another year, another mini-storm linked to media coverage of the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

As always, the controversial issue is how to describe the size of the crowd. That’s been a hot-button topic inside the DC Beltway for several decades now (think Million Man March debates) Authorities at United States Park Police tend to turn and run (metaphorically speaking) when journalists approach to ask for crowd estimates.

March For Life organizers have long claimed — with some interesting photo evidence — that the size of this annual event tends to get played down in the media.

That is, if elite print and television newsrooms bother to cover the march at all. For more background, see this GetReligion post from 2018: “A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat.” And click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw focusing on media-bias issues linked to mainstream coverage of abortion.

So, what about 2019? Writing mid-afternoon, from here in New York City, let me note one bad snippet of coverage, care of USA Today, and then point to several interesting issues in a much more substantial story at The Washington Post.

I received a head’s up about the lede on an early version of the USA Today story about the march. Alas, no one took a screen shot and it appears that the wording has since change. However, several sources reported the same wording to me, with no chance for cooperation between these people. Here’s a comment from the Gateway Pundit blog:

USA Today, the first result when you search for the march in Google News, began their story by saying, “more than a thousand anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.”

Wait. “More than a thousand?” During a bad year — extreme weather is rather common in mid-January Washington — the March for Life crowd tops 100,000. Last year, a digital-image analysis company put the crowd at 200,000-plus. During one Barack Obama-era march, activists sent me materials — comparing images of various DC crowds — that showed a march of 500,000-plus (some claims went as high as 650,000).

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Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

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That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

As your GetReligionistas have explained many times, abortion is an issue that isn’t automatically religion-beat territory. However, most public debates about abortion (and euthanasia) end up involving religious groups and the arguments almost always involve religious language.

Yes, there is a group called Atheists Against Abortion and there are other groups on the religious and cultural left, such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. I was converted to the pro-life position as a young adult through articles at Sojourners, including a famous essay by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But in the mainstream press, liberal pro-lifers hardly exist, if they exist at all. You would never know that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Democrats (depending on how you word the question) hold positions on abortion that most journalists would call “anti-choice.”

Thus, questions about abortion have long been at the heart of surveys linked to religion and media bias, with journalists, especially in elite urban zip codes, consistently backing America’s current regime of abortion laws to a much stronger degree than the public as a whole. It’s been that way since I started studying the issue in the early 1980s.

If you were looking for a recent Armageddon moment on this topic (other than the current U.S. Supreme Court fiasco), it would have to be the media coverage, or non-coverage, of the criminal activity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

Here at GetReligion, the blogging and chutzpah of M.Z. Hemingway played a key role in forcing debates about that topic out into the open.

In the past week or so, several GetReligion readers have sent me the URL of a commentary at The Daily Beast that ran with this headline: “Leaked NPR Emails: Don’t Call Kermit Gosnell an ‘Abortion Doctor’.”

This piece focuses on one of the key issues raised during the Gosnell trial — what professional title should reporters describe to this member of the abortion industry?

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Pre-weekend think piece: A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat

Pre-weekend think piece: A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat

It's March for Life day and, during a rather busy teaching day here in New York City, I have been trying to pay attention to some of the live-streams of coverage from Washington, D.C.

So far, I have not seen any edgy websites or cable shows manage to get "president," "prostitute" and "pro-lifers" into the same headline or info graphic, but I won't be shocked if that happens.

President Donald Trump's speech to the marchers -- via video hook-up -- pretty much guaranteed this year's event would get more mainstream ink than it has in the past. As always, politics is worth more coverage than piety or poignant personal stories (the kind told, year after year, by the "I regret my abortion" activists).

Nevertheless, the March for Life remains what it has been for decades -- the Olympics for researchers studying media-bias issues (click here for a collection of GetReligion posts on this topic). I think it would be helpful to pause and look at the history of that, as we await some of the headlines and trends from this year.

During my early 1980s graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I looked at quite a few of the articles and photo-analysis studies that already existed contrasting mainstream media coverage of these giant anti-abortion rallies and other Washington events on other topics.

Then, in 1990, everything changed.

That was when the late, great media-beat reporter David Shaw of The Los Angeles Times wrote his ambitious series on media-bias issues tied to abortion. Ever since, any significant discussion of March for Life news coverage has included some kind of reference to this story: " 'Rally for Life' coverage evokes an editor's anger." The overture is long, but essential:

The Washington Post is "institutionally 'pro-choice,' " the Post's ombudsman, Richard Harwood, wrote. ... "Any reader of the paper's editorials and home-grown columnists is aware of that." But "close textual analysis probably would reveal that, all things considered, our news coverage has favored the 'pro-choice' side," too, Harwood conceded.

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Texas is making it more difficult for women to get abortions, and Politico can't hide its concern

Texas is making it more difficult for women to get abortions, and Politico can't hide its concern

Politico reports this week on "How Texas is beating the Supreme Court on abortion."

This is a typical mainstream media treatment of abortion, as the news organization tells the story almost entirely from the perspective of pro-choice activists.

Yes, Politico quotes a few pro-life sources. But mostly, the piece frames the issue in terms favorable to the abortion-rights side.

Let's start at the top:

AUSTIN, Texas — When Texas lost a major abortion case before the Supreme Court last year, the state’s conservative lawmakers didn’t back down.
Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature responded with about four dozen new anti-abortion bills this session, positioning the state to continue to be one of the most restrictive in the country, where women in large swaths of Texas are hundreds of miles from the nearest provider.
One proposal would ban a common second-trimester procedure. Another would bar state funding for abortion providers, including Planned Parenthood. A third would require fetal remains to be buried or cremated.
Meanwhile, dozens of clinics shuttered under the now-quashed law have remained closed, unable to muster the resources to reopen in a politically hostile, regulation-heavy environment. Texas has become the model for states that want to chip away at legal abortion until it is outlawed, while dodging court precedents that knock down laws.

Did you catch that phrasing in the last sentence?: chip away at legal abortion until it is outlawed. Is the legal really needed there? Why not not simply say chip away at abortion until it it outlawed? Am I reading too much into it or does that single word hint at Politico's pro-abortion mindset on this report?

Throughout the story, the issue is cast in terms of women having to drive farther to terminate pregnancies ... abortion clinics being forced to close down ... and pro-choice activists being galvanized to speak out.

Did anyone at Politico consider a different kind of framing, one focused, say, on the reduced number of abortions in Texas and why pro-life voters welcome this trend? Probably not.

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Satanic ritual abuse back in the news, only now these claims are being met with skepticism

Satanic ritual abuse back in the news, only now these claims are being met with skepticism

Satanic ritual abuse is back in the news, but this time around the press is doing a much better job in reporting on allegations that secret covens of satanists are abusing and murdering children in America and Britain.

Beginning with the McMartin preschool case in 1984, when KABC trumpeted the news that the operators of a Manhattan Beach nursery school had ritually abused several dozen children, much of the media accepted without question fantastic claims brought by police, parents and prosecutors. But by the early 1990s when the the courts began tossing out convictions based on recovered memories, coached testimony and magical thinking, the media backed away.

In 1991 David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles examining the media’s coverage of the McMartin preschool trial, finding his own newspaper had failed in its duty to provide balanced, honest coverage.

In its analysis of the McMartin case, the New York Times wrote:

The verdict has produced a self-examination by the media, most notably a four-part series in The Los Angeles Times in which David Shaw, who covers the news media for the newspaper, asserted that his own newspaper consistently favored the prosecution and failed to give critical scrutiny to its charge.

Academic and government studies have subsequently found no truth in claims of organized groups abusing children for satanic ritual purposes. Some abusers have used these motifs to frighten their victims, but in the U.S. and Britain there is no such thing as ritual satanic abuse (SRA).

I qualify my statement by saying "the U.S. and Britain," in that religiously motivated ritual abuse does exist in Africa. Police have investigated incidents in the West of suspected ritual abuse committed by recent immigrants who may have brought their customs with them.

Two current stories in the U.S. and British press have resurrected SRA: the Pizzagate story from the 2016 presidential election campaign and abuse claims lodged against deceased British Prime Minister Edward Heath.

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Does New York Times style guide discourage using 'March For Life' in news reports?

Does New York Times style guide discourage using 'March For Life' in news reports?

Is anyone really surprised when there is controversy about mainstream press coverage of Washington, D.C., marches linked to abortion?

Honestly. I was reading articles on this topic back in the early 1980s during my graduate-school days at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. Abortion had already emerged as one of the hot-button issues in any study of news-media bias.

So are we really surprised that The New York Times published a news article -- not a column or analysis piece -- in which great care appears to have been taken to avoid using the words "March For Life" when reporting on the 2017 March For Life?

We will come back to that topic, after a flashback to 1990. That's when The Washington Post put a spotlight on this issue with it's radically different coverage of two different D.C. marches about abortion. Post management eventually conceded that something strange had gone on.

First, there was a major march in favor of abortion rights. Here is how David Shaw, writing in The Los Angeles Times, described the Post coverage of that event:

... When abortion-rights forces rallied in Washington ... the Post gave it extraordinary coverage, beginning with five stories in the five days leading up to the event, including a 6,550-word cover story in the paper's magazine on the abortion battle the day of the event. The Post even published a map, showing the march route, road closings, parking, subway, lost and found and first-aid information.
The day after the abortion-rights march, the Post published five more stories covering the march, including one -- accompanied by three pictures -- that dominated Page 1. The march stories that day alone totaled more than 7,000 words and filled the equivalent of three full pages, including most of the front page of the paper's Style section.

How did that compare with Post coverage of the next major rally and march, organized by the National Right to Life Committee? Maps? Major features? There was modest, but significant, coverage in other major news media. But at the major news outlet closest to the march?

... The Post consigned the rally to its Metro section and covered it with just one, relatively short story. ... Rally sponsors were outraged.

This incident, to be blunt, became the template for future battles over media coverage of these kinds of events inside the Beltway and in other major cities nationwide.

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