Roe v. Wade

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

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.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Washington Post goes to 'Southern Bible Belt' to produce predictable story on abortion debate

Washington Post goes to 'Southern Bible Belt' to produce predictable story on abortion debate

The best journalism offers insight and nuance, such as the Washington Post’s recent piece on people of faith in Greenville, N.C., where the crowd chanted “Sent her back! Send her back!” at President Donald Trump’s recent rally.

The worst journalism relies on caricatures and stereotypes, telling a predictable (yawn!) story that doesn’t do much to add to anyone’s understanding.

I’d suggest that the Post’s recent coverage of an abortion debate in a small Texas town falls into the latter category.

Think elite newspaper goes to hick town to explain what the crazy locals are doing. It’s a journalistic trip to the zoo, as we sometimes describe it here at GetReligion.

The lede:

WASKOM, Tex. — Almost overnight, a small town nestled in the heart of the Southern Bible Belt has become a battleground for America’s deeply divisive debate over women’s reproductive rights.

Two immediate thoughts:

1. “Southern Bible Belt.” Is there any part of the Bible Belt that isn’t Southern?

2. “women’s reproductive rights.” That wording right there give any clue as to the Post’s leaning? This isn’t an abortion debate; it’s a debate over women’s reproductive rights. (If you’re new to GR, find details here on the rampant news media bias against abortion opponents.)

Let’s read some more:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

Yo, New York Times editors: There are several Catholic angles linked to Joe Biden's abortion flip

As many pro-life Democrats and others have noted in social media: That didn’t take long.

After years of opposing the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortion — supporting the Hyde Amendment — former Vice President Joe Biden bowed the knee to primary-season realities in this “woke” era of Democratic Party life and reversed himself on this issue. Thus, he erased one of his few remaining ties to his old role as a centrist, compromise figure in his party on moral, cultural and religious issues.

Needless to say, the word “Catholic” may have something to do with this story. That term even made it into the New York Times coverage of this policy flip. See this all-politics headline: “Behind Biden’s Reversal on Hyde Amendment: Lobbying, Backlash and an Ally’s Call.

The overture focused on the political forces that yanked Biden’s chain, from members of his staff to rivals in the White Race. The Planned Parenthood team called early and often. Then, down in the body of the story, there was this:

A Roman Catholic, Mr. Biden has spent decades straddling the issue of abortion, asserting his support for individual abortion rights and the codification of Roe v. Wade, while also backing the Hyde Amendment, arguing that it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

But Mr. Biden, his allies acknowledge, had plainly misread what activists on the left would accept on an extraordinarily sensitive issue. For all his reluctance to abandon his long-held position on federal funding for abortion, Mr. Biden ultimately shifted in order to meet the mood of emergency within his party’s electoral base.

The big word, of course, is “base” — which usually means “primary voters.” The question is whether the “base” that turns out in primary season has much to do with the mainstream voters that are crucial in the Rust Belt and the few Southern states that a Democrat has a chance to steal in a general election.

So where, in this Times report, were the voices from pro-life Democrats and progressive and centrist Catholics who wanted to see Biden try to reclaim blue-collar and Catholic votes that, in 2016, ended up — #LesserOfTwoEvils — going to Donald Trump? I would imagine they are hiding between the lines in the following material:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

What is 'medical futility'? Reporters covering 'heartbeat' bill need to ask an essential question

In yet another U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion — City of Akron v. Akron Center for Reproductive Health in 1983 — Justice Sandra Day O’Connor found herself pondering the potential impact of advanced medical technology on the trimester framework at the heart of Roe v. Wade.

Hang in there with me for a moment. I am bringing this up because the information is highly relevant to news coverage of the bitter debates surrounding efforts to pass a “heartbeat” bill in Georgia. That was the subject of recent post by our own Bobby Ross, Jr., that ran with this headline: “Culture war winner: Atlanta newspaper delivers fair, nuanced coverage of anti-abortion 'heartbeat bill'.”

Just to be clear: I agree with Bobby that this particular Atlanta Journal-Constitution article contained a wider than normal range of voices explaining how different groups view that abortion legislation. That’s good. However, there was one crucial, and I mean CRUCIAL, point in the article that confused me. Digging into that topic a bit, I found more confusion — at AJC.com and in some other news outlets, as well.

In the end, I will be asking a journalism question, not a question about law or science.

Let’s walk into this carefully, beginning with this long quote from Justice O’Connor in 1983:

Just as improvements in medical technology inevitably will move forward the point at which the state may regulate for reasons of maternal health, different technological improvements will move backward the point of viability at which the state may proscribe abortions except when necessary to preserve the life and health of the mother. … In 1973, viability before 28 weeks was considered unusual. However, recent studies have demonstrated increasingly earlier fetal viability. It is certainly reasonable to believe that fetal viability in the first trimester of pregnancy may be possible in the not too distant future.

The Roe framework, then, is clearly on a collision course with itself.

This is, of course, precisely what is happening. At this point, it is commonly accepted that the viability of unborn children — weight is crucial — has moved back to between 22 and 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Will science make even more progress there, in terms of helping premies survive outside the womb?

Now, onto the “heartbeat” bill debates. When can scientists detect the heartbeat of an unborn child? That would be six weeks into the pregnancy. Parents can usually hear the heartbeat, with assistance, at nine to 10 weeks. Note this passage in the story that Bobby critiqued:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Did America just undergo a massive pro-life lurch? Reporters should interpret polls carefully

Axios, always atop breaking news trends, posted a bold headline Feb. 24 that announced “New Poll Finds ‘Dramatic Shift’ on Abortion Attitudes.”

The February poll showed Americans are evenly split between those identifying as “pro-choice” and as “pro-life,” tied at 47 percent, while only a month before the same pollster reported pro-choicers outnumbered pro-lifers, 55 percent to 38 percent.  

The Axios article recycled a press release from the polls’ sponsor, the Knights of Columbus, that proclaimed "in just one month Americans have made a sudden and dramatic shift away from the prochoice position and toward a pro-life stance.” See January release here and February release here.

Abortion attitudes remain as politically and religiously potent today as they’ve been the past 46 years, so reporters are ever alert to trends. But should the media be reporting that thinking across the fruited plain lurched from a big gap to a tie between Jan. 8-10 and Feb. 12-17, the survey dates? 

What are the odds? Democrats’ recent advocacy for unpopular late-term abortions alongside intimations of infanticide might be driving a modest pro-life uptick, but 17 points? 

With polls, journalists always need to be careful and assess the full context. The Religion Guy’s hunch here is that the fat abortion-rights majority in January was an outlier, and the February tie is pretty much representative of American thinking.  Why? See below. 

Preliminaries: The Knights, who paid for both the January and February polls, are ardently pro-life Catholics. However, they hired the well-regarded Marist Poll to run the survey and crunch the numbers. Despite its Catholic name and origin, sponsoring Marist College is officially non-sectarian. Technical note: the Knights did not reveal the polls’ response rates, an all-important factor. 

The Religion Guy maintains that February’s 47-47 tie is interesting but not the big news as trumpeted.

Enter the Gallup Poll, journalists’ invaluable gold standard for asking consistent religious and moral questions across many years. 

Gallup’s comprehensive compilation on abortion attitudes shows this version of the Marist question, asked 32 times since 1995: “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life?”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

Thinking about the United Methodist future and (parts of) the Southern Baptist past

GetReligion readers who have been around a while may recall that I grew up as a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid in Texas. Then I did two degrees at Baylor University in Waco, long known as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

This was all before the great Southern Baptist Convention civil war broke out in the late 1970s. That all went down as I was breaking into journalism and then into religion-beat work.

Looking back, I would say that I was raised on the conservative side of “moderate” SBC life and then went way over to the liturgical “moderate” left — but only on a few political issues (I was very pro-abortion rights, for example). I never was a “moderate” in terms of doctrine. That’s what pushed me over into Anglo-Catholicism and then on to Orthodoxy. You can see signs of that in this 1983 magazine piece I wrote entitled, “Why I Can No Longer Be A Baptist: Giving the Saints the Right to Vote.”

While at The Charlotte Observer, I wrote one of the first stories about the formation of the “moderate” alliance against the more conservative SBC establishment.

Now, if you lived through all of that the way I did, you know this name — Nancy T. Ammerman. Writing as a sociologist of religion, she became one of the go-to scholars who interpreted the SBC civil war and, thus, a popular source for reporters in elite newsrooms (see her “Baptist Battles” book).

If you spoke fluent Southern Baptist, it was easy to see that she was totally sympathetic to the moderates on the losing side of this fight. Still, her views were interesting and often quite perceptive.

That brings us to this weekend’s “think piece,” an Ammerman op-ed for Religion News Service entitled: “How denominations split: Lessons for Methodists from Baptist battles of the ’80s.” Here is a very typical Ammerman summary of the thesis:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

New lede for an old news story: Brett Kavanaugh and the high court’s Catholic majority

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t only the highest court in the land, its judges have the responsibility to rule on cases that have a lasting impact on American politics, culture and religion. Driving those changes going forward will be a Catholic majority of justices who have become increasingly conservative, shifting the balance of the court for years to come.

The bitter partisan divide over Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court — including weeks of debate over the credibility regarding allegations dating back to the 1980s that he had sexually assaulted a fellow teenager at a party – revealed how polarized politically the country has become since President Trump’s election just two years ago. To conservatives, Kavanaugh is a man smeared with unproven accusations; liberals consider him a danger in the #MeToo age.

Just 20 percent of people in the United States identify as Catholic, a number that is in decline, according to a Pew Research study. As the president has vowed to chip away at abortion rights (legalized in 1973 by the court in the Roe v. Wade decision), it will be conservative Catholics who will be tasked with doing so in the coming years. Aside from Kavanaugh, the Catholics on the Supreme Court include Chief Justice John Roberts, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor. With the exception of Sotomayor, the other four justices are part of the court’s conservative wing. The remaining justices — Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan — are Jewish.

“I do think, however, that the Catholics on the court do fairly represent Catholicism. Roe v. Wade is only one of many issues that are important to Catholics,” said Anne Lofaso, a professor at West Virginia University College of Law. “Indeed, most Catholic abhor abortion. They split on the question whether the government should prohibit others from exercising their right, not so much on whether they would have an abortion. There is a spectrum of issues that Catholics care about ranging from what constitutes marriage, abortion, birth control, poverty, etc. People are not monolithic. We tend to pick and choose what aspects of who we are will be emphasized — hence, the phrase ‘cafeteria Catholic’ … Roberts and Alito represent one end of the spectrum. Sotomayor, a lapsed Catholic, represents another.”   

Some critics have called the current makeup of the Supreme Court a “Catholic boys club” given that they dominate the majority and are male conservatives.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Monday Mix: Reeling Penn parish, un-Celebrity Jimmy Carter, Satan in Arkansas and more

Monday Mix: Reeling Penn parish, un-Celebrity Jimmy Carter, Satan in Arkansas and more

Welcome to the Monday Mix!

What's that? Well, nine months ago, we introduced Friday Five, an end-of-the-week feature highlighting important and interesting links from the world of religion news. Readers have responded positively to that approach.

So today, we add this feature as another avenue to offer quick information and insight, focused on headlines you might have missed from the previous weekend and late in the week. You see, lots and lots of religion news gets published on Saturday and Sunday, when readership of this blog tends to fade a bit (some people go to lots and lots of baseball games, for example).

Frankly, there are times when it's hard to keep up, pointing readers toward some of what comes out over a typical weekend. Thus, we're trying out this new feature.

Please note: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

'Will Roe v. Wade be overturned?' Yes, do take the time to read this excellent piece of journalism

'Will Roe v. Wade be overturned?' Yes, do take the time to read this excellent piece of journalism

A conversational, informative lede that draws readers immediately into the story.

An impartial, fact-based narrative that quotes intelligent sources on both sides.

A solid chunk of analysis from an independent expert with impressive credentials.

A Kansas City Star story on the question of "Will Roe v. Wade be overturned?" boasts that winning trifecta — and it makes for a quality, satisfying piece of daily journalism.

"This piece by Judy L. Thomas is the best report I've read on the subject," Star reporter Laura Bauer tweeted about her colleague's work. "Definitely take the time to read."

My response: Amen!

As we've noted repeatedly here at GetReligion, mainstream news coverage often favors abortion rights supporters. In case you missed our previous references, see the classic 1990 Los Angeles Times series — written by the late David Shaw — that exposed rampant news media bias against abortion opponents.

Given the typical imbalanced coverage, the Star's fair, evenhanded approach is particularly refreshing from a journalistic perspective.

The lede sets the scene with a history lesson:

Almost half a century has passed, so forgive Dave Heinemann if he doesn’t remember every single detail of how things went down that long spring day in Topeka.

But one thing the former Kansas lawmaker hasn’t forgotten is the intensity of the 1969 debate on a measure that made abortion more accessible in the state.

“The Legislature was rewriting the state’s criminal code, and there was one section on abortion,” said Heinemann, then a Garden City Republican serving his first term in the Legislature. “That was the only section that really became a lightning rod.”

At the time, Kansas — like most states — banned abortion except to save the life of the woman. But some states had begun to propose measures to loosen the restrictions.

Please respect our Commenting Policy