In the often heated and acrimonious debate over whether our state needed a new abortion law this past year, the Salt Lake media have been remarkably level-headed and objective.
Why is this remarkable? You would, after all, expect reporters to try to balance the arguments and avoid favoring either side in any highly emotional issue, reserving comment for the editorial page.But nationally, the media are under attack for tilting on abortion, usually, it is argued, to the pro-choice side.
- IN A LOST ANGELES TIMES four-part series on coverage of abortion, the respected veteran media reporter and critic David Shaw asks how well the media have covered the abortion debate. He concludes: not very well. He writes, for instance, that news organizations have given more play to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion rights activists than to opponents.
Surveys show, he says, that 80 to 90 percent of all reporters favor freedom of choice.
John Leo wrote a U.S. News and World Report essay last year headlined, "Is the Press Straight on Abortion?" He cites a study that found reporters for the three network news shows and the Washington Post and New York Times quoted nearly twice as many pro-choice sources as pro-life ones. The ratio was 3 to 1 in stories filed by women reporters for the papers.
"One problem is that the new crop of female reporters, most of them smart, tough feminists of childbearing age, is having trouble dealing fairly with abortion reporting. Because the feminists have turned abortion into a litmus test for movement loyalty, these reporters are under enormous pressure [from friends and female associatesT to file politically correct copy. . . ."
Leo reports attempts by Washington Post managing editor Richard Downie to correct this perceived bias after the Post's ombudsman wrote that the paper gave "shabby coverage" to a pro-life rally in Washington. As I've noted before, Downie is himself so conscious of the need to be fair that he doesn't even vote, lest he betray an inclination to favor one political side over another!
- ON NATIONAL TELEVISION, the pro-choice people usually seem to get the better of the debate, though I am not sure that is by network bias. In 1989, NBC ran a news special anchored by Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville that focused on the U.S. Supreme Court's then-upcoming review of Webster vs. Reproductive Services. The program followed the docu-drama featuring Holly Hunter as the woman who was the central figure in the landmark abortion case Roe vs. Wade.
I thought the pro-choice people got far the better of the angry debate, but not because, as the pro-life people alleged, NBC had a "hidden agenda." It just seemed to me that the pro-choice spokespersons were polished whereas the pro-life people were strident. The pro-choice spokespersons were the elegant Faye Watterson, national president of Planned Parenthood, and Anna Quindlen, the articulate New York Times columnist.
One of the TV programs that had a clear viewpoint, in this case of pro-choice, was, oddly, a "Children's Express" newsmagazine of a couple of years ago. It used a hidden camera to follow a reporter, posing as a pregnant unmarried teen, through an abortion counseling clinic that counseled teens only to reject abortion.
- THE SALT LAKE NEWSPAPERS have been extraordinarily careful to use the terms pro-choice and pro-life, labels preferred by each side. (Shaw says that one indicator of bias in the national press is the use of the terms pro-choice for one faction but anti-abortion for the other.)
The Deseret News has codified this neutral usage in its style manual.
At the Salt Lake Tribune, social services writer Carol Sisco, who has written most of the abortion stories over the past several years, has been just as cautious.
Sisco even avoids the word "restrictive" in referring to Utah's new abortion law. She says while the law is restrictive to the mother's choice it in fact gives the fetus more rights. She feels the word "strict" is less inflammatory.
Bob Bernick, the Deseret News political writer, has written admirably restrained and balanced articles on the debate. Bernick says that groups representing each side have been faxing press releases to the paper, and that as nearly as possible the News has been running these and trying to balance them.
Neither Bernick nor Sisco has found that there has been inordinate pressure brought to bear against the papers.
The Legislature has been accused of ramrodding the bill through because the debate took just three days, a phenomenon the national media made much of. The action should not, however, have surprised anyone. The papers have carried literally dozens of stories in the past year, since the 1990 Legislature sidestepped the abortion issue, about the inclination of the Legislature's Abortion Task Force to offer a tough bill in the 1991 session. The papers have covered comprehensively not only the rallies and the speeches but also the nine hearings the task force held last year throughout Utah.
- EDITORIALLY, the papers have been reluctant to take militant stands, in the Deseret News because the LDS Church said it was not going to take a stand on the bill and that its position on abortion was well-known.
The Tribune has been arguing that the law here should be left alone because other states should engage in the costly business of carrying tests to the U.S. Supreme Court. It also has argued against the economic boycott being pressed by some pro-choice organizations.
And in his role as an analyst, Bernick has worried that the Legislature did not give enough heed to the potential economic effects of the law.
Last year Gov. Norm Bangerter noted that "Utah is a difficult place to conduct an abortion debate because emotions run so high." The media rose to the challenge that observation implied.