Big news report card: Grading abortion buffer zone coverage



As my GetReligion colleague Jim Davis highlighted this morning, the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday struck down a Massachusetts abortion buffer zone law.

News junkie that I am, I enjoyed perusing today’s front pages and searching Google News to see how various news organizations handled the story.

Using my media critic’s prerogative, I decided to grade some of the coverage.

My major criteria: First, how fully did a particular story cover the important details — including the court’s majority and minority opinions, the reactions by the parties involved in the case and the responses by activists on both sides of the abortion debate? Second, how fairly did the story treat all sides?

My grades:

• Associated Press: D.

The AP covers the justices’ opinions fairly but favors abortion-rights sources in reporting reactions. Pro-abortion Planned Parenthood gets preferential treatment throughout the story, while a quote from the abortion protesters’ attorney is buried.

• Boston Globe: B.

The Globe’s coverage of the ruling concerning its home state features a lead story that quotes a variety of sources, from the main parties to anti-abortion Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and a pro-abortion health center owner. However, the story lacks details on the court’s decision itself and how various justices differed even as all nine opposed the law.

CBS News broadcast report: A.

In a report that runs about two-and-a-half minutes, CBS presents the key facts and on-camera reaction interviews with both an abortion-rights activist and an anti-abortion advocate — both of whom come across as intelligent and professional.

Chicago Tribune: A.

Godbeat pro Manya Brachear Pashman’s Page 1 story mixes excellent insight on the Supreme Court ruling with an important local angle — the potential impact on Chicago’s 8-foot “bubble zone.” The story is thorough and presents a wide range of sources.

Fox 25 in Boston: F.

It’s difficult to imagine lazier, more biased “journalism” than this television news report manages in three minutes. The report shows five sources on camera — all aghast at the court’s ruling.

Los Angeles Times: B.

The LATimes puts the ruling in context and quotes sources on both sides. In a few places, though, the report makes broad statements that seem to cry out for additional background and sourcing.

New York Times: D.

The NYTimes’ front-page story does an excellent job of explaining where the justices came down. But the Old Gray Lady shows her bias when it comes to reporting reactions to the decision, giving top billing — and much more space — to Planned Parenthood than the winning plaintiff.

Wall Street Journal: B-plus.

The Journal covers a lot of ground in a relatively short amount of space and manages to do so without tilting its coverage toward either side. The lack of mention of 77-year-old anti-abortion activist Eleanor McCullen — the namesake along with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in the case McCullen v. Coakley — prevents the top grade.

• Washington Post: B.

Until almost the end, the Post’s story offers a textbook example of how to cover a controversial issue fairly and down the middle. But then the final paragraph gives an official from — surprise, surprise — Planned Parenthood an opportunity to lambaste the decision. What’s missing? Any reaction from an anti-abortion group. Why quote one side and not the other?

That’s my report card. What other coverage have you seen? What grades would you give?

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • fredx2

    Your grades roughly indicate which newspapers are committed to driving their own ideological preferences, and which ones prefer to report the news so people can make up their own minds.

    The AP is particularly bad. I remember during the 2004 election, their top political reporter even said that he viewed his job as keeping George Bush from being re-elected. And of course they just retracted much of their “Tuam baby killers” story

    The New York Times, of course, has become a silly newspaper. Once great, now simply silly.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Hmmmm. I was working for AP in 2004 and covered a number of Texas-related stories in that presidential campaign. I don’t recall that quote you talk about concerning the top political reporter. Do you have a link?

      • FW Ken

        Bobby, here’s the story, not sure if it’s true.

        Don’t mean to butt in; just showing off my searching skills. ?

        • Bobby Ross Jr.

          Hmmmmm, interesting link. But it seems too one-sided and full of innuendo for me to take without a huge measure of skepticism.

          • Howard

            It gives the author, the date, and the subject. Frankly, “a huge measure of skepticism” does not seem to be in order; a quick search of AP stories from that date might be.

          • Bobby Ross Jr.

            No, actually it provides hearsay:

            Lindlaw is a well-known Democratic partisan; my source has heard him say, “My mission is to see that Bush does not get re-elected.”

          • Howard

            I see what you mean. I did not read down very far, just far enough to identify the AP story that was referenced. Yes, it is suspicious that “my source” remains unnamed.

  • Parableman

    I do think it’s less bad in this case to quote only one side than it might usually be. After all, the Supreme Court unanimously took one side of the dispute, and I can see how some of these journalists might be thinking that they just need to present the other side to be fair, because the justices themselves gave the side of McCullen. If this weren’t part of an overall trend to report only one side in abortion cases, I’d press that point more firmly. But, alas, this is an overarching trend in abortion reporting, and I’m not sure these journalists were thinking that way rather than just responding in their normal, instinctive way that ignores the pro-life side.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      That’s a good and interesting point. Appreciate it.

    • Howard

      That depends on the length of the article, and whether the article actually gives the justices’ reasons for opposing the buffer zone, as opposed to the mere fact that they ruled against it.

  • Daniel F. Crawford

    How did NPR cover the story? Their abortion coverage has always been more than a little biased.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.


      The Supreme Court has struck down a Massachusetts law mandating a 35-foot buffer zone around clinics that provide abortion services.

      Backers of the legislation have said the law treats groups equally, requiring both supporters and opponents of abortion rights to maintain their distance from the clinics. But in a unanimous ruling Thursday, the justices found that the buffer zone infringes on the First Amendment rights of protesters.

      I’m not familiar with their overall coverage of abortion, but this story does seem to be told from the perspective of the abortion rights side. Yes, the argument of the backers was that the law requires both supporters and opponents to maintain their distance. But the response from the anti-abortion side is that the pro-abortion folks are the clinic personnel and they’re the ones bringing the women inside and meeting them on the sidewalk.

    • Howard

      You can take “abortion” out of the 2nd sentence without damage to its meaning. Yet they continually ask for my donations, showing that hope, or at least naivete, springs eternal.

  • DPierre

    How about I grade this post: A+!

    This is *exactly* the kind of media analysis/criticism we need to see more of.
    Great post.

    By the way, the Fox25/Boston “F” grade underscores how ridiculous local news coverage can be and often is.

    Local news stations are almost *never* under the glare of criticism, and it is refreshing to see one *finally* taken to task here.

    Bravo, Bobby.