Finding a way to tick off both camps in the abortion wars

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There have been some interesting comments on the pro-abortion-rights spell checker issue, so I’d like to respond a bit.

Journalist Jon Swerens made several points, including:

* Note that the offending words “pro-life” still did not make their way into print, leaving the reader of the corrections to wonder how in the world the phrase “anti-abortion” could be edited into an opera review.

* The Associated Press Stylebook does indeed say: Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice. But this stylebook is obviously for news writing only, not for letters to the editor or opinion columns.

* The AP Stylebook is not gospel. My own newspaper uses the tems pro-life and pro-choice — as a matter of style and fairness.

I was working as religion writer and columnist at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver during the era when many of these newsroom style issues were being hotly debated. There was a time when most newsrooms did the worst possible thing. They let one side use its own chosen label while refusing to allow the other side to do the same. Thus we had “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion.”

There were two ways to fix this. A few magazines let each side define itself, with the terms usually printed in quotation marks to show that they were biased — “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” Notice that neither term included the actual issue being debated, which was abortion. Thus, most newspapers elected to make both sides mad by replacing their chosen labels with more literal terms — “pro-abortion rights” and “anti-abortion.” This was and is an imperfect solution, but at least it’s balanced and accurate.

The 1990 Los Angeles Times series mentioned in my earlier piece remains a landmark, raising questions about accuracy and fairness that are relevant today — on a host of issues. It is worth noting a brief list of its findings, from the day-one story.

Responsible journalists do try to be fair. … But careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play:

* The news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.

* Abortion-rights advocates are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.

* Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention. …

* Columns of commentary favoring abortion rights outnumber those opposing abortion by a margin of more than 2 to 1 on the op-ed pages of most of the nation’s major daily newspapers.

And so forth, and so on.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Simon S

    The link back to the LA Times matter is broken.

  • http://getreligion.org Douglas LeBlanc

    Thanks for catching the problem, Simon. It’s fixed now.


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