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The Aborted Debate

CNS readers don't seem to be interested in balanced news coverage.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 2/4/2002

The week started a letters-to-the-editor column also turned out to be the week CNS gave its readers something to write a letter to the editor about -- the site's attempt to provide "balanced" coverage of abortion-related protests in Washington, D.C.

CNS readers, it turns out, don't really want balanced news coverage.

This little firestorm began with a Jan. 22 story by writer Matt Pyeatt on "a handful of abortion rights advocates" and their views among "a sea of pro-life marchers" in Washington, D.C., on the anniversary of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. The story is devoted exclusively to their views, and that set CNS readers off.

"How come you didn't bother to include any quotes from the pro-life marchers that were there in abundance? You must have had to actively avoid asking them any questions for your 'news coverage'!" wrote one reader in a Jan. 23 letters column. "As a fellow journalist, I must say I never read a more biased, unbalanced story than the one mentioned above. The editors did not do their jobs either by letting such a story run as written," wrote another.

This served as the basis of CNS' first ombudsman column, also on Jan. 23. Managing editor Scott Hogenson wrote that such a column had been in the works for a while, and "I could not have asked for a better means of launching this initiative than the mail I received" regarding Pyeatt's article.

Hogenson explained that the Pyeatt article was a companion piece to another article that day by writer Jason Pierce on the pro-lifers. "From a purely empirical standpoint, the Pyeatt and Pierce articles were essentially on a par with each other," Hogenson wrote.

Hogenson notes that reaction to the Pyeatt article was "100% negative" (nobody apparently complained about the fact that Pierce's story had no opposing views in it) and that in the future CNS plans to more clearly link together related articles.

That's a good idea. But the debate obscures a couple of things that are worth noting.

First, the Pyeatt article did include some bias -- though not the kind CNS readers complained about. The headline of the article read: "Abortion Debate Gets Nasty In Front of Supreme Court." That's misleading for a couple of reasons. It implies there was some sort of specific incident of conflict between pro and anti forces, which doesn't occur in the story. That means the word "nasty" is being applied to the views of the pro-choice protesters quoted in the story. While the pro-choicers quoted did say a few things that could be considered unreasonable -- calling President Bush and pro-lifers "ignorant" and accusing them of wanting to turn America into "a Taliban state of women having no rights" -- is that really any more "nasty" than, say, waving large posters of bloody fetuses, as some pro-lifers are wont to do?

(On the other hand, a letter-writer to CNS says in the Jan. 24 letters column: "I will admit that the title for Mr. Pyeatt's article was somewhat apropos. The 'nasty' part of the abortion debate is when abortion advocates have the gall to go out in public trying to justify their cause.")

Second, CNS readers somehow managed to overlook what certainly looks like a pro-life tilt in CNS' abortion coverage in stories printed around the Roe vs. Wade anniversary:

  • A Jan. 21 story on a "pro-life activist" who collects and details incidents of abortion providers involved in other criminal activity.
  • Another Jan. 21 story on a group of "teen pro-lifers" protesting embryonic stem cell research.
  • A Jan. 23 story on "a small group in New Zealand" alleging that abortion clinics there were not giving fetal development information to women and thus denying them "a real right to choose."
  • A Jan. 21 story (fourth in a series, according to the links at the bottom) on an Australian medical student who opposes abortion on demand in the country.
  • A Jan. 22 study on a study that concluded that "women who abort their first unintended pregnancy are more prone to suicide, increased substance abuse and clinical depression than women who carry their unintended pregnancy to term," though the article is balanced by a "feminist psychologist" who debunks the study.

Besides that last article, there is one more incident of attempted "balance" -- a Jan. 22 story on a press conference by Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice (the article calls them "pro-abortion") organizations claiming that Roe vs. Wade is in danger of being overturned. The article quotes speakers as denouncing "reproductive health domestic terrorists" who mailed letters purportedly containing anthrax to abortion providers around the country as well as present an "ever-present threat of anti-choice violence, harassment and intimidation." CNS, you'll remember, couldn't quite bring itself to report on the most recent egregious example of that.

While there seems to be a definite pro-life slant, CNS did at least take a stab at balance. But that good deed doesn't exactly go unpunished. Another Jan. 24 letter-writer says: "The ombudsman column is a good idea. However, concerning the coverage of the abortion debate, I'm not sure why you would feel compelled to give equal time to both viewpoints. There seems to be some confusion on your target audience."

It seems that at least some of the people who complain about "liberal bias" in the media believe conservative bias is just peachy. That is the "target audience" of the ConWeb.

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