For years, journalists took one of two different approaches when labeling the two sides in America’s legal wars over abortion.
On one side, there where the people who — in keeping with the long-standing tradition that movements are allowed to name themselves — called the people who opposed abortion the “pro-life” camp and those in favor of legalized abortion the “pro-choice” camp. The quotation marks, in this case, meant that these were labels used by the activists themselves.
Meanwhile, most journalists went with another set of labels, calling those who opposed abortion the “anti-abortion” camp, while calling those who backed legalized abortion, yes, the “pro-choice” camp. In other words, the cultural left was granted its label of choice, while the cultural right was stuck with a label that it hated, a label that its leaders argued missed the larger point of their cause.
Also, what was the object of the word “choice” in that “pro-choice” mantra? Why state one side of the argument in terms of a positive choice and the competing side in strictly negative terms? Americans tend to favor the positive statements of causes, not the negative. Also, opponents of abortion, with good cause, wondered if this linguistic slight to the cultural right was linked to all of those survey numbers showing that 80 to 90 percent of America’s journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, backed abortion rights.
During my tenure on the religion-beat in Denver, I had a pivotal conversation with a Rocky Mountain News metro editor on this subject.
I was willing to accept continued use of the “anti-abortion” label for the cultural right, since it was, in the end, accurate in a blunt, literal way. But was it fair, I asked, to keep using that “pro-choice” label for those who backed abortion as a legal option in our society? Why not strive for some kind of literal label that pointed, once again, to the real issue at hand. I suggested the bulky, but accurate, “pro-abortion-rights” label. Today, this is the label used in many newsrooms.
The bottom line, I said, was that his is an issue that has divided our nation almost right down the middle and, thus, it was our responsibility to be as fair and accurate as possible to both sides. If the nation was divided 50-50 or close to it, then it was in our interests to be as balanced as possible.
The editor’s response was blunt: My argument was rooted, she said, in my pro-life bias. One statement hit me so hard that I went back to my desk and wrote it down. The “vehemence” with which I argued for 50-50 coverage, she said, was “evidence of my pro-life bias.” Yes, she actually used the “pro-life” label.
I thought of that exchange the other day when I reader noted, in a highly blunt and personal comment linked to one of the Divine Mrs. MZ’s post about coverage linked to abortion:
It is pretty clear that mollie’s “media criticam” (which she likes to insist is the only point of this blog) is nowhere near objective or fair. These blog post are no less biased than the media articles they are critiquing.
For example, it is clear that mollie is extremely sympathetic to the pro-life position. If this was truly an article only meant to help the media “get religion” and was not political than it should be impossible for one to read what the author’s position is. So, despite mollie’s pretensions, this post is nowhere near apolitical.
Actually, this is a commentary blog and no one who writes for it has ever tried to hide their traditional Christian beliefs when we are looking at mainstream-media coverage of hot-button religious issues in American public life, such as abortion. As I have said many times, and as many of my newsroom colleagues knew through the years, I am a pro-life Democrat and, as a journalist, I always felt much more comfortable applying the pro-life label to Mother Teresa (who I was blessed to interview while in Denver) than to politicians such as, to name one major politico I covered while in Charlotte, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. I am sure that was just my bias as an old-fashioned Southern Democrat.
What’s my point? MZ makes no attempt, in her commentary work here, to hide her pro-life convictions. However, she is just as fierce in her defense of old-school, balanced, accurate journalism. Your GetReligionistas are not hiding our views on the big issues. However, the point of this weblog is to fight for the “American model of the press” and we think that, the hotter the religion issue in the news, the more journalists should strive for 50-50 coverage that allows articulate and passionate voices on both (or multiple) sides to be heard.
That is our ultimate bias, in journalistic terms. If you find us advocating coverage that slants to the cultural right, please send us the URL to that post. We will respond.
Here’s why I bring all this up.
Since our move to the Patheos universe, I have been spiking roughly 50 percent of the comments made on my posts (I cannot speak for everyone else), especially when the comments (a) try to pontificate for or against a particular religious point of view or (b) have nothing to say about the journalism issues raised in our posts. I spike just as many comments by loud, press-bashing conservatives as by loud liberals.
Many people simply do not understand what we are trying to do here. Thus, the Patheos elders recently asked us to produce a short, simple “About GetReligion” statement, as opposed to the original “What We Do, Why We Do It” essay published the day we opened for business.
Here is what we came up with:
At GetReligion, we don’t report religion news or debate doctrines. Instead, we critique the good and the bad in mainstream press coverage of religion.
This journalism website — started by Terry Mattingly and Douglas LeBlanc in 2004 — is built on the conviction that mainstream journalists can’t accurately cover real events and trends in the real world without working to understand the role that religion plays in the real lives of real people.
Our commentaries tackle stories about economics, politics, sports, academia, culture, entertainment and other topics often haunted by religious subjects and themes missed by reporters, producers and editors. Thus, the journalists who write here strive to spot what we call “religion ghosts” hidden in mainstream news.
The bottom line: This is a pro-journalism blog.
We will keep trying to do what we do.