Abortion coverage, part I

On Monday I offered some thoughts about a New York Times piece that looked at a crisis pregnancy center that offers ultrasounds, counseling, diapers, baby clothes and adoption referrals. I had mixed feelings about the piece. It began quite well but fell prey to some of the classic problems reporters have when covering the abortion issue.

ignoringIn my view, the pregnancy center was described as trying to trick women into thinking it’s an abortion clinic. Its contention that abortion can cause problems, such as breast cancer or depression, was brazenly dismissed.

John Leland, the author of the Times piece, responded to the criticism and I thought it worth bringing out from the comment section. Here’s a portion of his response:

A lot of thoughtful commentary on the article and subject matter here.

I’m not sure why it’s controversial to describe the crisis pregnancy center as “designed to look and feel like a medical center, not a religion-based organization with an agenda.” No one would deny the Christian calling of the staff, nor their mission to reduce abortion. And no one, looking at the bland medical-style signage and waiting room, or reading the name A Woman’s Choice, would connect the center to either of these things. It would be remiss not to report this. But I did not think it was the whole story of the center, nor the most important facet, so I discussed it in the middle of the article and let readers make up their own mind how significant it was — whether it was bait-and-switch, as critics of pregnancy centers assert, or simply strategic marketing, as folks at the NRLC described it.

It’s always nice to get a reporters thoughts, and I and others responded to them in the comments thread, but by far the most illuminating comment was posted early on by some man named Terry Mattingly, who shared a memo from Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll. The memo followed a story about a proposed bill that would require abortion doctors to counsel patients that they may be risking breast cancer. Here it is, 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.

The memo should be read by all reporters who cover abortion. Of the many dozens of mainstream reporters I know, only about five are pro-life, to my knowledge. But many of those reporters who are not pro-life still know how to cover the issue fairly — even if they’re grumbling while writing the stories.

But it does seem difficult for some reporters to consider all sides of the debate worth discussing or giving proper coverage to. And I’m curious to see if or how this will affect the way media outlets treat Monday’s annual rally against abortion.

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  • http://www.blackphi.co.uk/webitorial.php Phil Blackburn

    I worry about this approach to balance: if 99 researchers in a field believe one thing and 1 believes another then is it really balanced to quote one from each side?

    Similarly, if scientific matters are being discussed then the real question should be whether there is credible science supporting the link, rather than a “credible scientist”. Credible science is generally considered to be science published in the major peer-reviewed journals; I don’t know what makes a scientist credible to newspaper readers, but his/her publicly expressed political views could well be relevant.

    Assuming that we are talking about Joel Brind here, then he does seem to be the one against the ninety-nine. The impression I get from a quick google is that anti-abortionists find him credible whilst pro’s find him non-credible. This is the problem with looking for a “credible scientist”. His recent paper was published in the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, which doesn’t help.

    Scientifically it seems clear that the best randomised studies haven’t found evidence of a significant link between abortion and breast cancer. This doesn’t definitely mean that no such link exists, although it is likely that any such link is small. It does mean that if staff in a medical centre are authoritatively telling women that an abortion makes them more likely to get cancer then this is not counselling, it is more like abuse.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    I can not tell you how much I agree with the sentiment that 99:1 with equal quoting is NOT equal balance.

    But even assuming your hypothetical ratio were correct, I think the remedy is pretty simple here. Rather than censor the one scientist, as the Times story did, simply air his views, give some context (this study disagrees or these scientists disagree) and let the reader be informed.

    Also, and I’m not saying in the same story, it would probably be good for reporters to do a bit of investigating into the highly politicized field of publication in peer-reviewed studies and the difficulties that scientists going against the “approved story” have in getting their work published.

    It is my personal experience that there is literally nothing so political as academia and its publications process. And that includes partisan political activity and churhces.

    But for a story on a bill about an abortion-breast cancer link, I think it’s okay to, you know, mention a scientist who supports it.

  • Megan B.

    I agree with Mollie in the original context of the Carroll memo, where the story itself is about the abortion ~ breast cancer link. The question for me here is really whether such “balance” is warranted (or unwarranted) in a piece like Leland’s, where he only wants to devote a sentence or two to the subject. I think here the scientific consensus (from my limited reading on the subject) does seem one-sided enough that it is not “brazen” to dismiss the claim as he does (“considered scientifically unsupported by the National Cancer Institute”).

    The subject of postabortion syndrome is far more controversial, as I understand it (and less well-defined, which helps the controversy) — but that one he does at least expand on later, although I agree some actual details on the cited works would sure have been nice!

  • http://www.blackphi.co.uk/webitorial.php Phil Blackburn


    I have a problem in that the link to the story from John Carroll’s memo is dead, so I’m working from deduction. It does look as though Joel Brind is mentioned: the issue being whether his scientific arguments or his political views are more relevant.

    Given space limitations in a column, it is hard not to over-represent a minority viewpoint. I guess in this case it would be possible to word the scientific side in a clear way (“Brind says x but the scientific consensus is y”), but much easier to stick to his political views. If legislators are trying to make laws based on his arguments, though, then the issue is not really what Brind’s scientific opinions are but whether they represent a scientific consensus.

    I do agree with your point about the difficulties around peer-review and publication; that makes things even more complicated.

    My basic point about balance in a newspaper column, though, is that I think there is a lot more to it than just letting lots of people have their say. The internet is good for that, in print I would hope for more emphasis on quality: not all opinions are equal. Can the print media be trusted to deliver a fair weighted balance? There’s the rub. (Actually, a point you made in the earlier article about giving at least enough information for a reader to follow up if interested – your point was in the context of studies referenced without mentioning author or publication – is relevant to this, I think).

  • http://www.homeschoolblogger.com/Somerschool Scott W. Somerville

    Dr. Brind isn’t the only researcher who thinks there is a link between abortion and breast cancer, but the other folks that I have talked to aren’t going public with their views. I’m just an attorney, but I spent about a year researching this issue and am personally convinced that the link is real. I’ve been thrashing it out with some strong-minded people over at MediaGirl at http://mediagirl.org/node/1062#comment-4298?PHPSESSID=d781a1f0eebf34d8cf7e04812676f53b