NYT publishes ‘news story’ on pregnancy centers

NYT publishes ‘news story’ on pregnancy centers January 9, 2013

The New York Times, a daily publication that claims to “Publish All the News That’s Fit to Print,” gave front-page play to the growing number of pregnancy centers that discourage abortion.

As a journalist, I believe in the value of skepticism: It’s a healthy attribute in reporting and writing newspaper stories. My question related to this particular Times report: At what point does skepticism detour into editorializing?

Let’s start at the top (boldface emphasis mine):

WACO, Tex. — With free pregnancy tests and ultrasounds, along with diapers, parenting classes and even temporary housing, pregnancy centers are playing an increasingly influential role in the anti-abortion movement. While most attention has focused on scores of new state laws restricting abortion, the centers have been growing in numbers and gaining state financing and support.

Largely run by conservative Christians, the centers say they offer what Roland Warren, head of Care Net, one of the largest pregnancy center organizations, described as “a compassionate approach to this issue.”

As they expand, they are adding on-call or on-site medical personnel and employing sophisticated strategies to attract women, including Internet search optimization and mobile units near Planned Parenthood clinics.

Is that double attribution really needed? Does putting “a compassionate approach to this issue” inside quote marks intentionally call the description into question? What do we have here: simple journalistic attribution (that’s a good thing) or scare quotes (that’s not)?

Keep reading, and the Times provides this background:

Pregnancy centers, while not new, now number about 2,500, compared with about 1,800 abortion providers. Ms. Maxon estimated that the centers see about a million clients annually, with another million attending abstinence and other programs. Abortion rights advocates have long called some of their approaches deceptive or manipulative. Medical and other experts say some dispense scientifically flawed information, exaggerating abortion’s risks.

What approaches are deceptive or manipulative? What is the scientifically flawed information? Will both sides get a chance to comment on the claims?

Immediately, both sides receive an opportunity to weigh in briefly:

Jean Schroedel, a Claremont Graduate University politics professor, said that “there are some positive aspects” to centers, but that “things pregnant women are told at many of these centers, some of it is really factually suspect.”

The centers defend their practices and information. “Women who come in are constantly telling us, ‘Abortion seems to be my only alternative and I think that’s the best thing to do,’ ” said Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International, which she described as a “Christ-centered” organization with 1,100 affiliates. “Centers provide women with the whole choice.”

Later, the Times returns to the criticisms raised against the pregnancy centers:

Some centers use controversial materials stating that abortion may increase the risk of breast cancer. A brochure issued by Care Net’s national organization, for example, says, “A number of reliable studies have concluded that there is an association between abortion and later development of breast cancer.”

Dr. Otis Brawley, the American Cancer Society’s chief medical officer, who calls himself a “pro-life Catholic,” said studies showing abortion-breast cancer links are “very weak,” while strong studies find no correlation.

Other claims include long-term psychological effects. The Care Net brochure says that “many women experience initial relief,” but that “women should be informed that abortion significantly increases risk for” clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. An American Psychological Association report found no increased risk from one abortion.

How does Care Net respond to the claims that its materials are inaccurate?

The Times does not give it an opportunity to respond. Who are the sources of these “reliable studies?” Again, the Times does not provide Care Net’s response. Perhaps the newspaper believed it had done its duty by quoting a “pro-life Catholic,” but telling both sides of the story would require interviewing a medical expert aligned with Care Net, right? At the very least, if Care Net declined or failed to provide such experts, the story should say so, right?

Instead, the story focuses on Care Net’s strategies:

Mr. Warren, who described Care Net as a “Christian faith-based organization” with 1,100 affiliates, likened the centers’ new strategies to his experience working at Pepsi. “The end result was to put liquid into someone’s stomach; we talked about it as ‘share of stomach,’ ” he said. “The work that centers are doing, it really is a lot around ‘share of mind.’”

Again, I’m curious, do we really need quote marks around “Christian faith-based organization?” Is this the Times expressing doubt that it really is a Christian faith-based organization? Or am I reading too much into simple attribution?

By all means, read the full story and weigh in. Just a reminder that GetReligion is a journalism site, so please focus comments on the media questions, not the abortion issue itself.

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7 responses to “NYT publishes ‘news story’ on pregnancy centers”

  1. If those are Warren’s exact words, I don’t see what the issue is with the quotation marks. If they are not his words, that’s another story, but from their placement, I’m assuming they are.

    • But why not just write the more efficient phrase “Roland Warren, head of Care Net, says …”?

  2. Seconding Meg. Quotation marks around catch-phrases pepper the piece. In each instance, the words clearly came out of someone’s mouth. An annoying stylistic affectation to be sure, but not scare quotes.

  3. I do think the “pro-life Catholic” attribution for Dr. Brawley is important. It suggests that even people who are pro-life don’t necessarily see breast cancer as one of the specific problems with abortion. It also heads off the critique that the people who deny a link between abortion and breast cancer are pro-choice and in denial, which is a fairly popular meme int the pro-life movement (and lest anyone jump down my throat, I’m saying this as a pro-lifer).

  4. There were some things here and there that kind of stuck out to me, but overall I liked the story. Besides things already noted, here’s the thing that stood out most to me:

    “The Care Net brochure says that “many women experience initial relief,” but that “women should be informed that abortion significantly increases risk for” clinical depression, suicidal thoughts and behavior, post-traumatic stress disorder and other problems. An American Psychological Association report found no increased risk from one abortion.”

    I don’t know anything about the research on this topic, but what kind of report/study was this from the APA? Was this as intensive as a systematic review, as basic as an individual case study, or something that fell in between? “… No increased risk from one abortion.” How about two or three? Many women, especially when you get into lower socioeconomic populations have had more than one abortion. Would this make the statements that Care Net stated any more valid?

    Simply because something is published by the American Psychological Association doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the most rigorous study and that it’s not questionable. It would have been nice to know what exactly this reporter actually looked at from the APA. That would have been very easy to include.

    • It also doesn’t mention that there are studies which do link one abortion to increased psychological risks. Some people say these studies are questionable because they don’t establish causation, just correlation. Still, it’s surprising that the story doesn’t at least mention that they exist, if only to debunk them.

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