A COMPREHENSIVE LOS ANGELES TIMES STUDY FINDS THAT THE PRESS OFTEN FAVORS ABORTION RIGHTS IN ITS COVERAGE, EVEN THOUGH JOURNALISTS SAY THEY MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO BE FAIR. A four-part study of major newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage over 18 months, including more than 100 interviews with journalists and with activists on both sides of the abortion debate, confirms that this bias often exists.
- Part 1. ABORTION BIAS SEEPS INTO NEWS
- Part 2. ABORTION FOES STEREOTYPED, SOME IN THE MEDIA BELIEVE
- Part 3. ‘RALLY FOR LIFE’ COVERAGE EVOKES AN EDITOR’S ANGER
- Part 4. ‘ABORTION HYPE’ PERVADED MEDIA AFTER WEBSTER CASE
Highlights of the series’ findings:
- The news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.
- Abortion-rights advocates are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.
- Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention by the media.
- Many news organizations have given more prominent play to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion-rights advocates than to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion rights opponents.
- Columns of commentary favoring abortion rights outnumber those opposing abortion by a margin of more than 2 to 1 on the op-ed pages of most of the nation’s major daily newspapers.
- Newspaper editorial writers and columnists alike, long sensitive to violations of First Amendment rights and other civil liberties in cases involving minority and anti-war protests, have largely ignored these questions when Operation Rescue and other abortion opponents have raised them.
- Most media organizations, including the Associated Press, the world’s largest news agency, use the label “pro-choice”, the preferred label of abortion-rights advocates, but not “pro-life”, the preferred label of those who oppose abortion. During the first nine months of 1989, the TV networks used “pro-choice” in 74% of their references to abortion-rights advocates and used “pro-life” in only 6% of their references to abortion opponents.
- Abortion opponents are often described as “conservatives”; abortion-rights supporters are rarely labeled as “liberals.” Abortion opponents are sometimes identified as Catholics (or fundamentalist Christians), even when their religion is not demonstrably relevant to a given story; abortion-rights advocates are rarely identified by religion. Abortion opponents are often described as “militant” or “strident”; such characterizations are seldom used to describe abortion-rights advocates, many of whom can also be militant or strident — or both.
- When the Supreme Court issued Roe, initial news accounts emphasized the part of the ruling that said a woman would be allowed to have an abortion without restriction during the first three months of pregnancy. Even now, some in the media write about Roe in terms that suggest it legalized abortion only during that first trimester, even though it made abortion legal for any reason throughout the first and second trimesters of pregnancy (and for broadly-defined “health” reasons even in the third).
- The Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York is probably the single-most widely quoted source for studies and statistics on abortion, for example, but the media rarely point out that the institute is special affiliate of Planned Parenthood of America, a major leader in the battle for abortion rights.
- The media is generally careful to include comments from abortion-rights advocates in stories about abortion protests, but coverage of abortion-rights activities sometimes fail to include balancing comments from abortion opponents.
- When Roman Catholic bishops individually spoke out on abortion or, collectively, hired a public relations firm to aid them in the battle against abortion, some in the media grumbled about the church’s intrusion into the political arena. Similar media lamentations were forthcoming when bishops criticized (and raised the specter of ex-communication for) public officials who refuse to oppose abortion. But no such criticism was levied at the bishops in earlier years, when they endorsed a nuclear freeze or opposed Reagan Administration economic policies.
- The major media paid no attention to the discovery by Bob Woodward of the Washington Post that two justices who had played a major role in the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion had conceded, in private memos, that they knew they were “legislating policy and exceeding (the court’s) authority as the interpreter, not the maker of law,” as Woodward wrote.
- “When pro-choice candidates win, it is perhaps more easily accepted than it should be that their pro-choice position was the reason, and when pro-life candidates win, perhaps it is more easily accepted (than it should be) that that was really irrelevant to the race,” says Douglas Bailey, an abortion-rights supporter who publishes the nonpartisan “Abortion Report,” a daily compendium of news on abortion and politics. There have been a number of races in which the media said an abortion-rights advocate’s victory showed the political strength of that movement when, in fact, most of the votes in the race actually went to anti- abortion candidates.
The bias is not just in America. In Dublin, Ireland, where 33 to 1 of articles on abortion were pro-abortion, thousands of people came together to fight the bias.