Landmines in abortion reporting

landmineThe Washington Post has a religion-heavy article on Nicaragua’s therapeutic abortion ban. Until a few weeks ago Nicaragua permitted abortions to be performed on women who had been raped, whose babies were abnormal or who faced medical risk, according to reporter N.C. Aizenman. Abortion opponents claimed that the loophole for therapeutic abortions was being abused.

Stories about abortion and the laws that govern it are very difficult to write. Unfortunately, mainstream media don’t have an excellent track record with handling the issue fairly. This could be because they are overwhelmingly supportive of abortion on demand. We’ve discussed this before, needless to say.

Our story today begins with a tragic anecdote about Jazmina Bojorge, a five-months-pregnant woman who died in a hospital there recently. Proponents of legal abortion say she died because the law forbade her from having an abortion to save her life. But the hospital director says that’s wrong on two points:

Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, countered that the new legislation, which took effect Nov. 19, hadn’t even been signed into law when Bojorge arrived for treatment. Her death, which remains under investigation by Nicaraguan medical authorities, “has nothing to do with the abortion law,” he said. “These charges are being made by people who are taking advantage of what happened.”

So the director of the hospital says the law wasn’t even in effect when she was admitted and that Bojorge’s death had nothing to do with the abortion law. So what does the caption that accompanies the story say? It says:

Rosa Rodriguez shows a photo of her daughter, Jazmina Bojorge, who died when denied a therapeutic abortion.

I mean, it’s one thing to use an anecdotal lede extremely sympathetic to one side of a contentious debate. It’s another thing to use an anecdote that fails to hold water. But to caption the piece with new information that is contradicted in the story takes it to a new level. Yes, some abortion advocates have diagnosed from a distance that the fetus should have been killed to save the life of the mother, but it’s not backed up by the medical staff treating her. The caption shouldn’t take sides, should it?

The rest of the piece discusses the influence of Roman Catholic and evangelical church leaders, including Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, in pushing for the ban on therapeutic abortion. Let’s look at how it characterizes the debate:

On Oct. 6, Obando, [Archbishop Leopoldo] Brenes and various evangelical pastors led tens of thousands of citizens in a march to the National Assembly to demand a repeal of the exception for therapeutic abortions. Legislators obliged, fast-tracking consideration of the ban under procedures normally reserved for national emergencies.

Every major medical society in Nicaragua opposed the proposed ban. Their concerns were echoed by Nicaragua’s health minister and a long list of foreign embassies and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program.

Gee, I wonder what foreign service staff writer N.C. Aizenman wants us to believe here about which side should have been listened to. I love that the foreign agents are unnamed and the addition of the scare phrase “normally reserved for national emergencies.” Just in case you didn’t get the point that the pro-lifers were bad people. The legal analysis isn’t substantiated by any source. You just have to trust the reporter.

nicaragprotestIt would be interesting to see how the reporter would handle the issue if the story were reversed. Let’s say the abortion opponents were the foreign influences and the abortion supporters were citizens.

Do you think the story would similarly situate the two sides, nudging the reader to support listening to foreign embassies and ignore the voice of the people?

The Post story fits the pattern for much abortion reportage, though. Mainstream media, as was reported in a Los Angeles Times study 16 years ago, tend to use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates, quote abortion rights advocates more favorably and often than abortion opponents, and ignore stories favorable to abortion opponents. One last paragraph to highlight:

Advocates for greater access to abortion argued that even that law was too restrictive, prompting an estimated 32,500 women to get illegal and potentially unsafe abortions in Nicaragua every year and accounting for 16 percent of the more than 100 maternal deaths here annually, according to a 2002 ministry study. By contrast, the Health Ministry recorded only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year.

A law banning abortion prompts people to have illegal abortions in the same manner a law banning rape prompts people to rape illegally. You may personally think either action is fine, and you may personally think either action should be legal and protected. But that’s not the point. Neither rape nor abortion is something an individual must do. Making either action illegal does not force the illegal action.

It’s also interesting that Aizenman says there were only six legal abortions in Nicaragua last year. A BBC report last week — very heavy on the religious angles — says there were 30,000 therapeutic abortions last year. I wonder if something was lost in translation.

Aizenman should follow the lead of other reporters who’ve successfully tackled the difficult subject: Keep personal opinions out, pick anecdotes carefully, quote liberally and describe situations in the sparest way possible. Otherwise these abortion stories will continue to be landmines.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Mollie–I’m not sure the abortion issue is a landmine for genuine reporters who try to be fair. It is clear from the example you gave that some writers of abortion stories are obviously pro-abortion ideologues who have no desire to be fair and are not accidentally stepping on hidden land mines as they are trying to be fair but are purposely firing broadside cannon fire at pro-life positions. They are really frauds as NEWS reporters.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    1) The caption almost certainly wasn’t written by the reporter. Captions are often written from second or third-hand summaries of the story. That doesn’t excuse the error. But do not seek out evil for an explanation when incompetence will serve.

    2) The story, OTOH, got it exactly right — putting up very high the doc’s quote that this death is being misused as a political football by the side in favor of abortion rights.

    3) With all due respect, Mollie, regarding your analysis of the characterization of the debate: Horsepucky. That’s a dead-straight description. If indeed the legislative procedure used was one that is normally reserved for emergencies, that’s the fact, Jack. And a newsworthy detail. And if the opposition was as described, ditto.

    4) The next paragraph you challenge — about the number of illegal or unsafe abortions — is attributed to the appropriate side. Are you suggesting that the reporter should not have included that side of the argument?

    Folks, print this out in big letters: A reporter who includes the argument from the side you disagree with is not AGREEING with that side, as long as your side is also fairly represented.

    4)Bonus challenge: How would you have worded those paragraphs in a way that did not tilt for either side?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JEFF:

    You know that Mollie understands that balance and accuracy is the goal.

    She simply likes to see facts attributed to clearly labeled sources, rather than stated as facts for the reader to assume on faith.

    Also, do you dispute the core findings of the famous David Shaw study in the LA Times?

  • http://until.joe-perez.com joe perez

    > The caption shouldn’t take sides, should it?

    Mollie is correct. This caption should have been re-written, e.g., by putting in the word “allegedly.” But do note that the caption does not claim that the denial of a therapeutic abortion CAUSED the woman’s death, only that the death followed the denial of an abortion. Technically, it’s inaccurate. It’s just not as carefully balanced as it should be.

    I read the whole article and found it very well done and fair overall. If this is the worst piece of anti-abortion bias that GetReligion can find, then it seems to me the media is in very good shape.

    I do wonder, however, if GetReligion believes that it would be appropriate for the WaPost reporter who interviewed Julio César Flores, director of the hospital, to (a) state his religious views on abortion and (b) report on whether the hospital is sponsored, supported by the Roman Catholic Church or might suffer retaliation if its policies angered the bishops. I would think such questions are not called for, but given GetReligion’s very aggressive insistence on balance it seems perhaps you would disagree.

  • http://until.joe-perez.com joe perez

    In previous post, I meant to say “Technically, it’s accurate” not the opposite. Should be clear in context…

  • http://pomoconservative.blogspot.com Irenaeus of Lyons

    Nice post. I often wonder how much it isn’t the individual reporter that’s at fault, but rather the whole required format/style etc. of the standard newspaper story. I haven’t been to journalism school, but the standard format seems to prohibit judicious and fair reporting.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JOE:

    The questions about Flores sound solid to me. I have no problem with Catholic institutions facing criticism. The question, to me, in a North American context, is whether the government can afford to exclude them from wider efforts on projects linked to medical care for the poor, including women who would CHOOSE Catholic facilities.

    Freedom of association — yes.

    The freedom to criticize — yes.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Irenaeus:

    Diverse newsrooms tend to produced coverage that is more diverse and nuanced. The heart of the LA Times study by Shaw was that the modern newsroom, on moral issues such as abortion, is far, far, far from diverse. Even liberal voices on media bias issues agree.

  • Michael

    The heart of the LA Times study by Shaw was that the modern newsroom, on moral issues such as abortion, is far, far, far from diverse

    When the Shaw study was done, Reagan was just leaving office. It’s a 16yo study based on even older data. That’s not the “modern” newsroom, that’s the newsroom of a completely different generation when many of the current reprorters were wearing braces and choosing a date for Homecoming.

    I’m sure I’ll be criticized, as usual, for being the voice of disagreement and mocked for allegedly not wanting objectivity., but isn’t it possible that things have changed. I mean, two of the GR bloggers were still in elementary school or junior high when the study was conducted.

    I’m not denying there isn’t bias in the newsroom, but constantly relying on 17yo data doesn’t really carry the day at some point. Things have changed. There’s still bias, but our country’s discussion of aboriton has completely changed since 1990 and undoubtedly the press has changed too.

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  • Harris

    Unless it’s Mollie’s position that the Nicarauguan law will result in no additional maternal deaths, or perhaps that no maternal deaths arising from a failure to abort should be reported, then it is difficult to see the problem with the opening anecdote.

    Plainly, some woman at some point will die and thereby be transformed into the martyr for the pro-abortion side. As noted in previous comments, the fact that the report noted this use of the woman’s death as a political cause celebre does not itself reveal a bias. The story is the push back by the pro-abortion parties.

    Finally, as to bias. Why should the reporter be faulted for citing the government’s own figures? The 30,000 abortions the BBC reported are clearly those that the article labled correctly as “illegal and potentially unsafe.” One calls them ilegal, the other source calls them “therapeutic” — so which has the bias? The article might be fairly if mildly pummled for its innumeracy at this point: according to UNICEF the estimated number of maternal deaths is not merely “more than 100″ but in fact well exceeds 200.

    The UNICEF data further illumines why NGOs might have thought the total ban was so ill-advised. Maternal and child death rates are strikingly high. While this story is about politics (the doctor did get it right, there), there is another story about economically “developing” nations such as Nicaraugua meet the challenges of poverty, mortality (infant and maternal), and the status of women, for which the incidence of abortion is merely the symptom.

  • Jerry

    > A law banning abortion prompts people to have
    > illegal abortions in the same manner a law banning > rape prompts people to rape illegally.

    That is a very false and misleading statement. It’s
    technically true, but certainly highly biased. I won’t repeat the anecdote that you objected to earlier, but people choosing to have an abortion out of desperation for various reasons are not comparable to rapists. To make that comparison, is, quite frankly, odious.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    people choosing to have an abortion out of desperation for various reasons are not comparable to rapists. To make that comparison, is, quite frankly, odious.

    Good thing I didn’t make that comparison, then. My point was a point of logic. LAWS against abortion don’t CAUSE people to have abortions — legal or otherwise. LAWS against rape don’t cause people to rape — legal or otherwise. Both abortion and rape are illegal in Nicaragua.

    Again, though, the point is one of logic. You may personally find one of the two acts to be more reasonable or justifiable, but that’s not the point of my comparison.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    A 2001 Public Interest essay (using 1995 data, I believe) showed the following:

    Nearly all of the media elite (97 percent) agreed that “it is a woman’s right to decide whether or not to have an abortion,” and five out of six (84 percent) agreed strongly.

    I suppose newsrooms could have changed somewhat in the last 10 years, but I highly doubt it’s enough to balance coverage out.

    NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT. Amazing.

  • J-Money

    Jerry,

    Really now. I really should not even have to say this, but here goes: Ms. Hemingway did not compare those having abortions with rapists.

    She said that one does not have an abortion because it is illegal anymore than one rapes because it seems like a good way to end up getting clapped in irons.

    It serves no good to get people fired up over an already emotionally charged issue by recklessly accusing the writer of something she did not say. Especially when you are doing it because she does not ascribe the nearly Sacramental importance to the right to kill a child aged 0-9 months that you do.

    Here’s an idea: stop the hyperbole and have a real conversation. Like, you know, a grownup?

  • Harris

    The legal analysis isn’t substantiated by any source. You just have to trust the reporter.

    This seems to be a bit unfair. If our reporter has it wrong, then shouldn’t the accusation — your first sentence– likewise be supported? With lack of evidence, the quote above dissolves into opinion. Clearly, Mollie, you do not like how the issue was phrased, but absent documentation, whom do we have to trust? The assertion that the reporter is biased can scarcely be supported in this context.

    Following, you create what may in fact be a false antithesis between the NGO community and the popular will. The development statistics (infant, maternal mortality, poverty, etc.) are really rather striking. Your opinion may be that they only want to murder children, or otherwise resist the popular will, but surely there are other plausible reasons for their stance? Again you have accused the reporter of a bias, but then turn to advance your case with an advocacy that is at least as devoid of fact.

    I don’t want to get too snarky here, but isn’t that a petard in your hand?

  • Jerry

    Sorry, but that answer was not responsive to my point. You chose to make try to make a logic point by putting rape and abortion together. Laws don’t force people to run red lights. Laws don’t force people to run around naked in the streets. Laws don’t force people to smoke in buildings. Laws don’t force people to bounce checks. Laws don’t force people to stop at stop signs. (etc etc etc).

    My point is that saying “laws don’t force someone to do something” is totally obvious and thus meaningless. So my only logical conclusion is that putting abortion and rape together was for another purpose which was the point of my prior post.

  • Sarah Webber

    Talk about landmines….

    Having spent most of 2006 pregnant (my daughter was born Oct. 30th), I’m a little more sensitive to this issue than usual. I hate the idea of any woman having an abortion, but I don’t think it’s fair to simply ban abortions and not provide alternative medical and counseling services to women. Living in the Northeastern US, I have access to the best pre-natal care and had a problem-free delivery. How many women in Nicaragua have the same access? What kind of birth control is medically and socially available? What might induce a woman to pursue an illegal abortion?

    I don’t think any article discussing abortion can be considered fair and balanced if it simply talks about women in terms of statistics, in Nicaragua or the US. If any woman is seeking an abortion out of desperation because she cannot see any other solution, surely those of us who oppose abortion are obligated to provide other assistance? Yes, I believe abortion is wrong but legislation alone doesn’t seem a viable answer. I have two children and suffered several complications this second time around; I’m not sure I would have survived without the vast medical resources available to me.

  • Dennis Colby

    Mollie wrote:

    “I suppose newsrooms could have changed somewhat in the last 10 years, but I highly doubt it’s enough to balance coverage out.

    NINETY-SEVEN PERCENT. Amazing.”

    Yeah, 97 percent of three newspapers, two magazines, and the national networks. That’s a ridiculously unrepresentative sample. Taking that as somehow representative of “newsrooms” as a whole in the country is like saying 22 percent of all judges are named John based on a survey of the U.S. Supreme Court.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Let’s look at Jeffrey Weiss’ comments:

    1) The caption almost certainly wasn’t written by the reporter. Captions are often written from second or third-hand summaries of the story. That doesn’t excuse the error. But do not seek out evil for an explanation when incompetence will serve.

    No one said the reporter wrote the caption. It doesn’t matter one hoot to a reader WHO wrote the caption. Also, I imagine that the caption-writer only read the first part of the story. Which leads me to the second point.

    2) The story, OTOH, got it exactly right — putting up very high the doc’s quote that this death is being misused as a political football by the side in favor of abortion rights.

    Perhaps it wasn’t high enough for the caption writer or the people who just read lead paragraphs and captions! Still, that wasn’t my point. As the Los Angeles Times study showed, anecdotes frequently are used that frame the debate in a manner supportive of the abortion rights side. Note that we didn’t get an anecdote showing people
    flouting the therapeutic abortion law in a particularly egregious manner or an anecdote showing how abortion harmed a woman’s life (not that we should, per se). But instead we got the mirror of those: an extreme anecdote — one that helps one side of the debate. Anecdotal leads are a wonderful thing to get a story going, and it’s hard to find good ones. But if the anecdote you have has too many problems, don’t use it.

    3) With all due respect, Mollie, regarding your analysis of the characterization of the debate: Horsepucky. That’s a dead-straight description. If indeed the legislative procedure used was one that is normally reserved for emergencies, that’s the fact, Jack. And a newsworthy detail. And if the opposition was as described, ditto.

    With all due respect back at ya, Jeff, that’s complete horsecrap. The reporter used subtle but SCARY language of religious and legislative extremism to describe the pro-life side. The reporter And tried to portray the pro-choice side as calmly based in science. I’m sure that’s how pro-choicers would like the story to be framed. But pro-lifers likely would not like that characterization.

    4) The next paragraph you challenge — about the number of illegal or unsafe abortions — is attributed to the appropriate side. Are you suggesting that the reporter should not have included that side of the argument?

    I didn’t read it that way as the sentence had multiple clauses. I see your point but I read it that the source was for the first clause (“even that law was too restrictive”) rather than any of the subsequent clauses (“prompting an estimated 32,500 women to get illegal and potentially unsafe abortions in Nicaragua every year” or “accounting for 16 percent of the more than 100 maternal deaths here annually, according to a 2002 ministry study.”). In fact, I’d argue that since the last clause has a different source than the first clause, it would be difficult for the reader to know that the middle clause should be attributed to the source in the first part of the sentence. I don’t think the reporter intended for the middle part to be attributed to anyone. I think he erroneously believed the “prompt” phrase was making a logical segue to the second sourced point.

    Folks, print this out in big letters: A reporter who includes the argument from the side you disagree with is not AGREEING with that side, as long as your side is also fairly represented.

    It is hard for me to not take offense at this comment, but I’m assuming I’m misreading it. I didn’t take sides in this essay — although apparently to some people simply asking for more precision and balance in a story about abortion seems that I AM taking the pro-life side. If that doesn’t speak volumes about modern abortion coverage, what does?

    I doubt you would suggest anything so offensive as that I think a story with the abortion-rights perspective is problematic. In the meantime, you may find the Los Angeles Times study a good read. It’s old, as someone mentioned, but later analysis has not shown a substantively different media environment.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Dennis,

    It’s only representative of elite media, as the piece clearly claims. The pollsters surveyed journalists from the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, Newsweek, U.S. News and World Report, the three commercial television networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), and public television (PBS).

    It’s worth noting that the piece we’re looking at today comes from one of those “elite” media outlets.

  • http://www.accidentalanglican.net Deborah

    …constantly relying on 17yo data doesn’t really carry the day at some point. Things have changed. There’s still bias, but our country’s discussion of aboriton has completely changed since 1990 and undoubtedly the press has changed too.

    If you have some more recent data about the ideological mix in today’s newsroom, Michael, then link us to it. Otherwise, the statement “undoubtedly the press has changed [since 1990]” is as unsupported as the stale conclusions you criticized.

  • Michael

    Anecdotal leads are a wonderful thing to get a story going, and it’s hard to find good ones. But if the anecdote you have has too many problems, don’t use it.

    Except this wasn’t an anecdote, it was news. The story of Bojorge’s death has been big news in Nicargua and the Latin American press and has been reported by others in the U.S. and English-language press. Think Rodney King, not anonymous Nigaraguan mother.

    If her death is framing the current debate in Nicaragua–where the correspondent was reporting–then it is news and an appropriate thing to lead with. Within five paragraphs, he framed the issue and offered opposing viewpoints.

    In the journalism I’m familiar with, that’s called good reporting and writing. Explains the news peg, offers varying views, and then digs deeper. I’m sure even the infamous LA Times analysis written during the Bush I administration would agree that’s textbook journalism.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MICHAEL:

    What “infamous” LA Times “analysis” are you talking about? We are referring to the massive four-day hard-news series on abortion coverage and the mainstream media.

  • Michael

    I think we are talking about the same study/analysis done in 1990 that Mollie linked to.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Scary? I don’t see it. Mollie, if the positions were reversed, I’d still say it was fair:

    On Oct. 6, Obando, [Archbishop Leopoldo] Brenes and various evangelical pastors led tens of thousands of citizens in a march to the National Assembly to demand passage of the exception for therapeutic abortions. Legislators obliged, fast-tracking consideration of the ban under procedures normally reserved for national emergencies.

    Every major medical society in Nicaragua opposed the proposed law. Their concerns were echoed by Nicaragua’s health minister and a long list of foreign embassies and international organizations such as the U.N. Development Program.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Some can write off the surveys of the Mainstream Big Mass Media as if they are only a tiny cog in a little machine
    –but that is absurd. The rest of the “little” media does everything possible to ape and emulate their media brethren in the real Bigtime Media to which many of them aspire.
    And, in fact, much of the local or “little” media frequently just reprints or adapts to their style the so-called news from the 97% pro-abortion Big Media. How about some affirmative action for believing Catholics and believing Evangelicals!!

  • Dennis Colby

    Deacon John M. Bresnahan wrote:

    “The rest of the ‘little’ media does everything possible to ape and emulate their media brethren in the real Bigtime Media to which many of them aspire.
    And, in fact, much of the local or ‘little’ media frequently just reprints or adapts to their style the so-called news from the 97% pro-abortion Big Media. How about some affirmative action for believing Catholics and believing Evangelicals!!”

    Are you writing from personal experience, empirical data, or just a dislike of people you feel disagree with you?

    I take strong exception to these blanket misstatements about the media, which are based on nothing more than partisan political opinions. I got my start in “little media,” in fact, as little as you can get: a weekly newspaper in Chicopee, Massachusetts. I now work for the largest news-gathering organization in the world, although I don’t regard myself as part of some preposterous “elite.”

    I’ve worked in every newsroom setup from a three-person operation to a large metro, and at all levels I’ve encountered a diverse variety of opinion on religion. At my last job, in fact, the managing editor was an extremely devout Catholic – a permanent deacon, as it happens. His beliefs hadn’t hindered his climb through the ranks, and the last thing he wanted to do was “ape and emulate” the New York Times, etc.

    While we’re on the subject, the term “Big Time Media” is incredibly offensive to the thousands of journalists who work at small papers, local TV or radio stations, or even out-of-the-way metro papers. Their work is just as important and vital to them as it is to journalists at USA Today or the Wall Street Journal. They don’t think of themselves as “small time.”

    Criticism of journalists is fine. When people make mistakes, it’s fair to point those mistakes out. If we can substantiate a pattern of bias in reporting, that should be noted, too. But this blanket dismissal of all journalists as part of some vast conspiracy to suppress the truth is paranoid, insulting, and incorrect.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dennis–then you account for how the Powerhouse Big Name Mainstream Media (call it what you will)
    winds up with 97% of “reporters” being pro-abortion. Is it because pro-lifers don’t even get a foot in the door at the smaller media outlets or because they are carefully weeded out if they try to move to The national Big Time. And since most strong pro-lifers tend to be Catholics or Evangelical Protestants it becomes a backdoor way to exercise a little religious prejudice at the same time. It is truly weird how some people clearly see and scream about bias and prejudice because Blacks are such a small percentage of the media elite, but will defend a total lack of fairness and equity
    when it comes to religion.
    As far as the power that Big Media-like the NY Times–has in influencing the hirings and policies of local media–I write from Boston where New England’s most powerful newspaper–is owned and manipulated by the radically liberal NY Times (and NY Times honchos are slowly replacing local people according to the business pages). And if you listen to and read local media it quickly becomes apparent who dictates the stories which will be considered the Big Story of the day and the “spin” that will be put on the stories.
    And as far as hiring prejudice–the mighty, rich, and powerful NY Times local outlet–the Globe has only one columnist they pay big bucks to write about Catholic issues–an ex-priest who hates the pope,trashes Catholic heritage and Traditions and teachings and isn’t even polite or temperate in his axe-grinding. Funny,in all metropolitan Boston not one competent writer can be found to write a counter-point to James Carroll’s frequently hate-filled screeds.
    Isn’t that a blatant pattern of bias in hiring??
    And then when they send out reporters that don’t know diddlysquat about the religion they are writing about and constantly use perjorative words like “RIGID” when talking of Church Doctrine instead of, for example more positive words like “strong” “forthright”, or “firm”
    And my survey is a personal one in reading the Boston Globe carefully for almost 50 years (originally as a fan of its news fairness) and seeing it become a joke as a news source and turned into a wholly-owned propaganda organ for the left-wing political and religious biases of their NY Keepers.

  • Jens

    Deacon — We don’t know if 97% of reporters are pro-abortion. The survey you are basing that on is of a very small handful of news organization. They are all based in major metro centers, where the populations are generally more supportive of abortion being legal.

    I completely second what Dennis has said. As a journalist, I too find it incredibly offensive when people use these conspiratorial phrases to describe the media. In my newsroom there are A LOT of devoted church-goers.

    As for the Globe and religion, as a Catholic I was deeply grateful for the paper unearthing many of the details of the priest abuse scandal. Sometimes exposing grave problems represents the highest form of respect for an institution.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Jens–I never said “conspiracy” or “conspiratorial”–the problem is the lack of any genuine diversity on religious-moral-political issues among reporters and editors in the Big Media newsrooms according to virtually every independent and university survey–leading to a natural “spin” that frequently portrays anything taught by religious authority as negatively as possible.
    Come on–you don’t really believe the rich and powerful Globe- NY Times combine can’t find a loyal, orthodox Catholic columnist in the whole Northeast to counterpoint ex-priest James Carroll’s frequently intemperate invectives against things papal and Catholic. To most Catholics that follow this issue–not media insiders and employees- this whole Carroll situation stinks of rank bigotry. He is the Globe’s well paid hit man. As for the Globe and other media outlets delving into the priest scandals–I agree with you–better to have the boil of pedophile and homosexual infestation of the priesthood lanced and drained. In the Old Testament it frequently took Israel’s enemies to purify her.But,of course, out of PC you get an “Oh My Gosh!! You can’t talk about or look at the homosexual angle of this!!”
    However, even the NY Times admitted in one–just one that I know of–front page story that the situation in public schools of various forms of sexual abuse is much worse than in the Catholic Church and that far, far more young people are victimized in those schools than in Church. And also the school bigshots even moved teachers around almost like bishops moved priests–The schools called it “moving the rubbish along.” BUT where are the I-teams, the spotlight teams, the media investigators. NOWHERE TO BE FOUND unless a story hits them in the face-like the current popular trend of women school teachers seducing young boys. Where has all that media passionate concern for children disappeared to???

  • Dennis Colby

    Maybe my own experience is completely outside the norm. But in my career as a journalist, I’ve worked on two major series about the Catholic Church. In the first, my editor – who was both an Episcopalian and a lesbian – directed me to focus on what she considered the untold story of the sex abuse scandal – the fact that many of the abusers were not pedophiles, but men attracted to younger men. This is obviously a radioactive subject, and we took a lot of flak for supposedly embarking on an “anti-gay witch hunt”; yet if it was a “witch hunt,” it was directed by someone who was openly gay and very much to the left politically.

    The second major series I worked on regarding the Catholic Church was overseen by an editor who is a permanent deacon and extremely conservative politically. And this series got us into such hot water with the diocese in question that my editor and I were denounced – by name – from the pulpit by the bishop.

    That, in a nutshell, is my concern about the idea of affirmative action for people with particular political or religious views. I realize that the good folks who run this site are strong advocates of it, but when pressed for specific ways to implement it – quotas? – they keep mum.

    I like to think that’s because they realize people can be good journalists no matter what they personally believe. In the situations I mentioned above, both my editors acted differently than would be expected of people with their backgrounds – and in both cases, they did so simply because they saw a good story that deserved to be told.

    As far as I’m concerned, that should be the standard we hold newsrooms to.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Dennis you make some good points. But (that infernal “but”) how many stories about sex abuse in public schools have you been assigned to investigate and ferret out??? You have been assigned two major series on the Catholic Church in your career–both apparently “hit” jobs of one sort or another. Were you never assigned a single series that might be positive–like a successful monastery in your area, Or a chaplain doing good work, or a successful Catholic school or charity in your area. From the Boston Globe you get hundreds of positive background and puff or fluff pieces–a steady stream of them about Gays, Lesbians, Transvestites,etc. etc.– But once in a decade or so (maybe a bit more often) you see a researched positive story on Catholics (or Evangelical Protestants).
    And on the two stories you mention I wonder HOW they were handled and WHEN they were put in the pipeline. Were they sensationalized beyond what was warranted?? Also, most stories are part of a news cycle–some longer than others–and some analysts of the coverage of the priest scandals are convinced the coverage was purposely promoted and prolonged by constantly looking at it from purported new angles in a manner other news stories weren’t.

  • Dennis Colby

    Deacon,

    Actually, I’ve written plenty of positive stories about the Catholic Church, although usually they’re fairly mundane – new pastor, old pastor retiring, etc. I did once write kind of a fun little feature about a church that had to get its 120-year-old stained glass windows removed for cleaning, and what it did in the interim.

    The paper where I had the Catholic editor actually ran a series following members of a local Catholic charity group to a summer mission in Africa, too, although those weren’t my stories.

    And the first series I did, on the sex abuse scandals, ran in January 2002 – which, of course, was at the height of the story.

    I can’t speak to the Globe’s coverage – when I lived in Massachusetts, it was far enough west that I might have lived on Mars for all the Globe (and metro Boston in general) cared. There was certainly a “feeding frenzy” mentality in a lot of the American press during the scandal.

    But I think there are a lot of positive stories being written about religion in the American press, although this may not be reflected in the top five largest newspapers or on television. I’ll freely admit that’s a problem: the New York Times is a lot more influential than two dozen mid-sized dailies. But I don’t think the work of journalists at the local and state levels – and there are far more of them than there are reporters at the “elite” news organizations – should be tarred with the same brush.


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