Big tests for media’s abortion message machine

Big tests for media’s abortion message machine July 12, 2013

Someone on Twitter noticed something illuminating about mainstream media coverage of social issues that’s worth a look. Remember, first, how tmatt quoted the New York Times‘ Bill Keller on the bias dividing line of that paper:

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

While many outlets are being more open and honest about their inability to cover — without, at times, quite dramatic bias — social issues, it’s still interesting to just see it in practice. So @DavidSeawright’s note is interesting:

Framing: Gay marriage, at 53%, has “country as a whole.” … Pro-life “polls pretty well” at 59% …

Both stories are from the same media outlet, the Washington Post. Indeed, they are from the same section — “The Fix.” Both stories even share a reporter. It’s fascinating, isn’t it? It’s just a very good example of the subtle ways in which stories are framed. It’s perhaps even more pronounced if you look at the headlines (which is all that many people do, of course):

A majority of the country supports gay marriage. Will any 2016 Republican presidential candidate?

Food stamps, abortion pose big tests for GOP message machine

Fascinating. Just fascinating. At the end of the post, I want to look at something positive about media coverage of this topic, but another quick notation about a New York Times story yesterday on the “safety” of abortions. The theme of the piece revolves around safe, safety and safeguards. The reporter promoted the piece on Twitter with the note:

Rare agreement on a sensible way to keep abortion safe: Maryland’s Path to an Accord in Abortion Fight

And it’s an interesting story, in many ways. But it was shocking to read an entire article about how to make abortions “safer” without even the slightest mention of how “safe” abortions are for the unborn child. If you’re pro-life, this is abundantly clear. If you’re pro-choice, just imagine reading a story about how to make slavery safer … for the slave owner. Or imagine if it were a story about how to make discrimination against homosexuals safer … for the discriminator. It would be weird, at best. This type of question-begging is common in stories about abortion. The perspective of the human who is killed in the procedure is almost never mentioned … at all!

The New York Times hyped this story in its morning email and even included it in its “Quote of the Day” in that email:

QUOTATION OF THE DAY  “Today, having an abortion is safer than an injection of penicillin.”  DR. DAVID A. GRIMES, the former chief of abortion surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, on the record of a procedure that is subject to new restrictions in many states.

The first comment on the story is from a reader who quotes the quotation of the day and adds:

Except for the innocent child, that is.

The second comment is:

Once again the elephant in the room is ignored. Debating what constitutes proper regulation of abortion procedures ignores the fundamental divide on the issue: when is it acceptable to kill a child in the womb?  The answer range is from “never” to “whenever”.  Current constitutional precedent says anytime for any reason (Roe v Wade, Doe v Bolton, Casey v Planned Parenthood) since “health exceptions” include distress from being pregnant. Public opinion has vacillated since 1973 and differs based on how the question is asked, but CLEARLY it is not a “settled” public question like slavery or human trafficking or suffrage or bigotry. If you think having an abortion is like removing a tumor or taking penicillin than every regulation is onerous, political, and ideological. If you think abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent baby then regulating abortion clinics is as noxious as drafting workplace improvement regulations for 19th century slave plantations.  It presumes that ______ is either NOT evil or that it IS evil but can be done in a good way.

Even something so simple as clarifying that this story was about how to make abortions safer for the women who have them would be helpful. This media practice of dehumanizing the main victim of the abortion is not journalistically defensible. It certainly does not help media credibility. And there is so much ground to be made up.

In any case, I said we’d end on a brighter note.

For context, we must think of the many stories the mainstream media publish regarding the goodness of abortion. For just three New York Times examples from the last month, there’s the one about how a late-term abortion enabled a baby to die in a warm place and this one from a woman praising her mother for aborting her sibling and this one lamenting women who birthed children despite their initial desire to abort them. Where are the pro-life stories? They’re not completely absent, just harder to find.

This week we saw some modest mainstream coverage of one such story. Modest or not, at least it’s out there. From ABC News:

A Virginia church says it has received hundreds of calls from people around the world offering to adopt an unborn child with Down Syndrome who would have otherwise been aborted.

After the unborn child came to the attention of Rev. Thomas Vander Woude of Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Gainesville, Va., an urgent plea was posted Monday on the church’s Facebook page.

CNN’s Daniel Burke also wrote up a piece about this story, which included fascinating details. The parish had to bring in extra staff to field the phone calls. More than 600 emails from interested parties were received. More than 1,000 couples were interested. Three prospective families were presented to the pregnant couple. This portion nicely blended doctrine with personal details:

The Catholic Church teaches that all life is sacred and strongly advocates against abortion – but the story is even more personal for Vander Woude. The 47-year-old priest has a brother, Joseph, who has Down syndrome.

The priest’s father, Thomas Vander Woude, died in 2008 after diving in a septic tank to save Joseph, who had fallen in while walking in the backyard.

“With our experience with my little brother Josie, this is something that is close to my heart for sure,” said the priest.

More than 70 priests attended Thomas Vander Woude’s funeral at Holy Trinity Church, including his eldest son, Thomas Jr., who officiated at the Mass and delivered the homily.

It’s not unusual for families to find children with Down syndrome to adopt on social media,  said Diane Grover, founder and president of the International Down Syndrome Coalition. In fact, several of the coalition’s board members have adopted children after seeing a Facebook post, she said.

“It’s a beautiful way for people to get the information out there,” Grover said. After checking to make sure the story was true, the coalition helped spread the word on social media about Vander Woude’s message and received hundreds of calls in return, she said.

This might be a particularly dramatic story about adoption and how religious motivation affects behavior, but there are many more stories out there for reporters to pursue — from the personal to the political. Good work to the (sadly) few media who realized the newsworthiness of this particular story.

Photo of child with Down syndrome via Shutterstock.

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  • Kristi McDonald

    In the stories about the percentage of Americans who support gay marriage and abortion, it would be interesting to find out what the margin of error was on the surveys. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s at least +/- 2 percentage points, which would make the 53% majority completely obsolete.

    • Green_Sapphire

      On the marriage equality issue, that majority could be ‘completely obsolete’ except perhaps for the fact that the trend for more than the last twenty years is for support for full marriage equality to be steadily increasing in the US, and the percentage in favor has doubled since 1996, and is this year at 54%.

      That is to say, even if a +/- 4% sampling error were relevant this year, it won’t likely be relevant next year.

  • Paul Wilson

    The “former chief of abortion surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” the New York Times quoted regarding abortion, David A. Grimes, was responsible for testing RU-486, and boasts of receiving awards from Planned Parenthood Strange that the NYT didn’t mention that in their “quote of the day,” instead portraying him as a neutral observer.

  • erin

    There is a recent psychological study that indicates that abortion actually can be risky for the mental health of the woman. Wonder if the NYT will cover that?

    • Green_Sapphire

      This 2011 study was widely and strongly criticized for its methodology, as have been Coleman’s other studies.

      “Her research has mostly met with poor reception from her professional colleagues. Researchers were unable to reproduce Coleman’s results on abortion and mental health despite using the same dataset, and have described her findings as ‘logically inconsistent’ and potentially ‘substantially inflated’ by faulty methodology. The American Psychological Association (APA) and other major medical bodies have concluded that the evidence does not support a link between abortion and mental health problems, and APA panelists charged with reviewing the evidence were similarly critical of the methodology of Coleman’s studies.” Wikipedia on Patricia K. Coleman

      In addition, a follow-up paper that appeared a few months later in the same publication, in addition to disputing her methodology and findings, also begins with the following (which is pretty dramatic to find in a scientific journal) questioning her ethics:

      “First, the paper states ‘Declaration of interest: None’. We believe this is incorrect. It seems that Professor Coleman is an anti-abortion campaigner, who has previously expressed the view that campaigning should include work in academic journals. For example, in a Powerpoint presentation on the website of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Professor Coleman states:

      (quote from Coleman): ‘We need to develop organized research communities to continue the research, apply for grants, recruit young academics, critique data produced by pro-choice researchers, challenge politically biased professional organizations, train experts to testify, and disseminate cohesive summaries of evidence.’ (end of Coleman quote) “