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Roe Warriors: The Media's Pro-Abortion Bias

Updated and Revised

Recommendations for Future Fairness:

Bringing a sense of political balance to coverage of the abortion debate is not a complicated mission. The methods of bias identified in this report could be corrected with these steps:

1. Portray the abortion debate as something with two equally ideological, passionate, or "extreme" sides. If one side opposes abortion at any time for any reason, and the other supports abortion at any time for any reason, it's unfair to describe one side as "extreme" and the other as "moderate." If the media assume that the pro-abortion extreme is more mainstream by virtue of its public support, they might consult that New York Times/CBS News poll to show that abortion advocates are in a small minority on late-term abortion. They're also vastly outnumbered on the issue of teen abortions without parental notification. Presenting the pro-life movement as "conservative" (or "ultra-right") and the advocates of abortion on demand as moderate or nonpartisan demonstrates a dramatic media-induced leftward shift in the political spectrum.

2. Report on the abortion debates going on within both political parties. Rediscover the pro-life Democrat. Reporters have often presented the truth that the pro-life movement is so powerful in the Republican Party that it's nearly impossible to be nominated for President and be pro-abortion. But they've not presented the equally true opposite: it's also difficult to be nominated for President in the Democratic Party if you're pro-life. (Witness the jettisoned pro-life stands of Dick Gephardt, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, and Bill Clinton.) If reporters are eager to break down the constituency groups in the Republican Party, why haven't they investigated the importance of abortion advocates in the Democratic nominating and platform-writing process? And why do the pro-abortion Republicans get all the contrarian spotlight? Almost 40 Democrats in the House and Senate are reliable pro-life votes. Not only would focusing on pro-life Democrats offer some balance to the bursts of coverage of pro-abortion Republicans, but it might correct the notion that all pro-lifers can be identified as "conservative."

3. Apply investigative journalism to the abortion debate and the abortion industry. More media outlets need to follow the recent lead of U.S. News & World Report. In their January 19 issue, reporters presented the results of dozens of interviews with women who had abortions. But Marianne Lavelle's article went even further, concentrating on the 79 clinics who perform late-term abortions. Among her findings: that while late-term abortions were a small percentage of the procedures purchased, only 9.4 percent of abortions at clinics that responded to the U.S. News survey were done for medical reasons. Lavelle also reported that far more widely used in late-term clinics than the partial-birth abortion is the "dilation and evacuation" abortion, where the "fetus is cut into pieces with serrated forceps before being removed bit by bit from the uterus." If the media spent even a fraction of the time they've spent on the tobacco industry investigating the abortion industry, the public would have a fuller picture of abortion in America today.

4. Try to cover pro-life storylines as well as pro-abortion storylines. For example, the national media have reported almost nothing on the more than 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers nationwide supporting women with unplanned pregnancies to carry their babies to term. In the last five years, the networks have aired only two stories on this phenomenon: a September 27, 1992 CBS This Morning segment about San Diego Planned Parenthood suing "bogus" abortion clinics for fraud, and a positive August 11, 1993 segment on CBS 's 48 Hours about the Nurturing Network run by former Bendix executive Mary Cunningham Agee. Normally, these sorts of compassionate efforts to assist women in need would be an attractive angle for a news media eager to focus on soccer-mom-friendly issues. Here's one storyline where overcoming personal biases could lead to a ratings triumph.