Back in Boston with abortion protesters and fair reporting!


I wasn’t expecting gifts for July 4 weekend, but I feel like I got one in this feature story in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a follow-up on the Supreme Court’s recent decision that overturned a law in Massachusetts meant to keep protesters away from abortion clinics.

The article is a good example of old-school long-form journalism. It’s nuanced, detail-rich and balanced — at least more balanced than I might have feared. We’ll discuss my reservations later.

For now, the Times joins Eleanor McCullen and fellow prolifers in front of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston. McCullen, you may recall, was the main plaintiff in the case decided by the Supreme Court.

First lesson is not to judge a story by its headline, any more than you’d judge a book by its cover. This story starts with a hostile-sounding “Abortion foes get up close and personal after court erases buffer zones.” Sounds like they’re waving and yammering in people’s faces.

But no. Times reporter Alana Semuels joins the protesters on the sidewalk, watching as they gently try to dissuade women from aborting their babies:

The two women climb out of the car in front of Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue and Eleanor McCullen reaches them in two quick steps. She tries to hand them a white rose and a pamphlet about alternatives to abortion, and beseeches them to let her help.

“I can help with housing, medical — we work with St. Elizabeth’s, just down the road, and everything is free,” she says, walking with the women as they approach the door.

Just a week ago, McCullen could not have gotten this close to the women in Massachusetts because of a law passed in 2007 that required that protesters stay behind a 35-foot buffer zone around entrances to abortion clinics.

But the Supreme Court struck down that law on June 26, ruling unanimously that the buffer zone violated protesters’ 1st Amendment rights to free speech. McCullen, a cheery 77-year old grandmother who carries knit baby hats outside the clinic, was the lead plaintiff in the case.

The mere act of reporting from the prolife side is an attention-getter in Semuels’ story. Many stories of the type — like this one in the Boston Globe — focus on the pro-abortion folks — the “rights activists” — throwing in a couple of quotes from their “anti-abortion” opponents in a pretense of fairness. Instead, Semuels sets scenes like this:

On Wednesday, protesters walked with impunity over the yellow line that had been painted on the sidewalk after the 2007 law was passed. They sat in chairs and prayed, sang hymns, and offered to help anyone walking into the clinic, handing them fliers that pictured an ultrasound with the words, “How could I ever have thought of aborting this baby!”

After a look at the cheery, grandmotherly McCullen, the story continues to another prolifer: Mary O’Donnell. She proffers rosaries and pamphlets with a “Good morning, Jesus loves you.” My only nitpick here is that Semuels feels the need to tell their ages: 77 for McCullen, 82 for O’Donnell. Ages aren’t given for pro-abortion sources and most of their clients.

I was all ready to complain about the use of “impunity” as a bit o’ bias. But then I looked at the dictionary definition: “exemption or freedom from punishment, harm, or loss.” Gol’ durn, the reporter used the word correctly.

I also liked how Semuels dutifully reports clashing viewpoints, without an obvious attempt to make us choose one:

The Boston clinic has had fewer patients than normal since the Supreme Court decision came out and more skipped appointments, said Marty Walz, chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts.

“We have seen a significant difference since the law was struck down,” Walz said. “We now have protesters in larger numbers and much closer to our doorway, harassing our patients as they approach the health center.”

McCullen said she saw it as an opportunity to save lives. “If you see a baby crossing the tracks by himself, and there’s a train coming, you don’t say, ‘Oh, we don’t care, the mother must be close by.’ We would run across there. It’s something we do as human beings,” she said.

See what I mean? There’s nothing like “aggressive” or “forceful,” or other code word adjectives meant to manipulate. Also no “pro-choice” or abortion “providers.” And only one instance of “antiabortion movement.” (However, in Semuels’ story on Monday, she did use the slanted shorthand of “anti-abortion advocates” and “abortion rights advocates.”)

Besides Marty Walz, Semuels quotes opposition such as a 19-year-old university student (the only place someone’s age is mentioned besides O’Donnell and McCullen). Rebecca Leung complains the protesters made her feel harassed and “uncomfortable.” The article also quotes Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, who vows to help pass laws providing “safe access” to abortion clinics.

Coakley’s quote is one of several fact issues that Semuels doesn’t check up on, making the single biggest weakness of this article. Another is when McCullen says she has prevented perhaps 20 abortions per year, without asking how she knows the clients didn’t go through with it later. Still another is when the pro-abortion side said they were working on laws to “protect” abortion clinic patients and “maintain public safety”; the article has no examples of threats or violence by the prolifers.

Perhaps Semuels was just trusting us readers — at least in this article — to use our own judgment. Here are the pro-abortion folks talking about safety. Here, on the other hand, are the anti-abortion folks greeting people with roses and rosaries and offers to help. Make up your own mind.

In all, I’d give this piece a solid A-minus. And if I were grading on a curve — comparing it with many other stories on abortion or church and state — it would be more like an A-plus.

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About Jim Davis
  • wlinden

    “Anti-abortion advocates”? Are they advocating “antiabortions”? (Presumably, implanting embryos into ungravid women.)
    http://www.amazon.com/Solomons-Knife-Victor-Koman-ebook/dp/B00HNZ0UGE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1404828739&sr=8-1&keywords=solomon%27s+knife

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    The DMN’s style is “abortion rights supporters” and “abortion rights opponents.” Which seems as un-slanted as it is possible to be in this context. Thoughts?

    • Kodos

      The AP Stylebook uses “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights”.
      The Reuters Handbook of Style uses “anti-abortion campaigners” and “abortion rights campaigners”.
      CBS uses “anti-abortion rights” and “pro-abortion rights”.
      NPR uses a mixture of terms, including “pro-life” and “pro-choice”, although they officially follow the AP style.

      Personally I dislike the terms used by CBS and the Dallas Morning News, which are colored by the inclusion of the term “rights”. People opposed to abortion argue that no one should have a legal “right” to murder, and laws granting those rights are unjust.

      All things considered, I think the AP style — although imperfect — is reasonably fair, concise, and accurate. However, I wouldn’t object to a journalist who uses the preferred terms of the advocates (“pro-life” and “pro-choice”) as long as the terms are used consistently and equally.

      • Jeffrey Weiss

        On side believes that there should be a legal right to abortion. The other believes there should not be a legal right to abortion. Whether or not abortion is murder is what the argument is about.

        • Kodos

          Perhaps I didn’t explain myself well.

          I don’t like the use of “rights” in the terms because no one wants to be opposed to “rights”. This, then, makes the term applied to the “pro-life” folks less attractive because they are “anti-______ rights”.

          In other words, using “rights” in both terms adds another layer of debate to the semantics. I’d prefer to have just one semantic debate layer (“abortion”) if we’re not going to use the terms chosen by the advocates on both sides.


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