Balance? No need for balance in reporting about abortion news

By Dave Andrusko

Thanks go out to the indispensible “GetReligion” website. Over a weekend I read a typically thoughtful article there about an piece that was “published on the website (a crucial brand name in mainstream journalism).” It was titled “New study shows why it’s so hard to get abortion coverage right.”

The concern properly raised at GetReligion is what was a pro-abortion advocate doing writing an advocacy piece here, the core conclusion of which is that “balance” in reporting about abortion is an out of date “trope” which risks printing “a bunch of lies”? (And guess which side is supposedly lying?)

The most revealing quote in the article is

“[Editors] are always saying, ‘You need to talk to the National Right to Life if you’re going to talk to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund,’” says study participant and reporter 31-year-old Miriam.

A “both sides” framework rewards advocates and activists willing to offer false information as a legitimate opposing perspective. In other words, it favors propaganda.

Let’s take a few minutes to analyze “New study shows why it’s so hard to get abortion coverage right,” by Tara Murtha.

We will skip her boilerplate pro-abortion read of the pre-Roe v. Wade history and her declaration that “Globally, abortion-related injuries sustained in places where the procedure is illegal is a leading cause of maternal mortality.” (It’s not, as we have written countless times such as here; here; and here.)

Murtha’s transition sentences runs thusly:

Yet, despite all this newsworthiness and the very high stakes, abortion coverage continuously falls short in frequency, accuracy and quality.

Why is covering abortion so hard to get right?

Why, indeed?

We’re going to get our answers, Murtha tells us, from a new study that appeared in the journal Contraception. “[R]esearchers interviewed 31 reporters with experience at 75 diverse outlets to examine how journalists experience the process of covering abortion”–aka “the news-making process.”

“Diverse” is the operative word, right? Who were the participants?

Participating journalists were recruited through “progressive” and “feminist” listservs. Only a few of the participants described abortion or reproductive health as their primary beat. Most interviewees were white, based in the Northeast, and female, living in households of wide-ranging income. (Even though most participants were white, the percentage was lower than the average pool of reporters).

It’s almost comical how unrepresentative the sample is, but who’s counting noses, right?

So what are the problems? The first “obstacle” is the aforementioned “both sides” neutrality requirement which means if you quote Planned Parenthood’s Action Fund you “need to talk to the National Right to Life,” an approach which “favors propaganda.”

Participants perceived more pressure to be “balanced” when reporting on abortion compared to covering other issues.

“The journalistic trope of ‘fairness and balance’ seems to mean simply quoting people saying falsehoods,” said 69-year-old Corrine. “You accurately quoted a bunch of lies.”

Perhaps because the abortion debate is so saturated with false information, one-third of the participants chose to interpret balance as a “competition of merit,” despite the pressure.

[Whatever that means.]

So who are the purveyors of “false information”? State legislators passing “boilerplate bills” might be one source.

Another reason it’s so hard to “get abortion coverage right” is the problem of editors who often have to be “educated.” “Given the myths that permeate the abortion debate, it’s unsurprising that editors —disproportionately white men — would lack basic knowledge about abortion as a medical procedure,” Murtha writes.

“’It was very clear the editor thought … abortion required something akin to major surgery,’ said Brenna, 41. ‘There are a lot of assumptions that they bring to editing that are not born out in what we know about abortion.’”

Murtha bemoans that most reporters covering abortion are women which amounts to a “double stigma.” She writes

In my personal experience as a reporter covering abortion, I experienced and observed the double stigma of being a woman covering an issue that disproportionately affects women. I recall being warned on more than one occasion that I was pigeon-holing myself. I felt the work was sometimes pink-washed, as if pursuing investigative evidence-based reporting of a controversial issue with high stakes was soft work, simply because it most directly affects women’s lives.

Note that on the one hand the fine investigative reporting of David Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress documenting Planned Parenthood’s trafficking in fetal body parts made even worse by stomach-turning insensitivity is brushed aside. Murtha also counsels reporters to “trace the genesis of the legislation, and assess the source,” that is to say, show it likely originated in model legislation created by National Right to Life and therefore, no doubt, to be dismissed

But that on the other hand Murtha lauds “investigative evidence-based reporting.” Is there an anyone who would not know that the primary “source” for that would the pro-abortion Guttmacher Institute and that knowing the source would add, not detract, from its credibility? After all, Guttmacher couldn’t possibly have an agenda, right?

That this one-sided, pro-abortion talking point memo is published in a “crucial brand name in mainstream journalism” tells you all you need to know why pro-lifers always get the short end of the stick.

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