Owning Up to Bias
A few months ago, we printed an internal memo by a Los Angeles Times editor on pro-abortion bias. Here is a Nov. 6 Chicago Tribune column by public editor Don Wycliff making a similar point. We 've included everything but its concluding paragraphs. The last sentence is worth adding though: “We might also add diversity on this issue to the types of diversity we seek and encourage in our newsrooms.”
Please use proper terms in future headlines when PRO-LIFE ACTIVITIES ARE COVERED! People who value life at all stages are PRO-LIFE, not anti-choice!”
That was part of an e-mail sent Saturday by a reader named Sharon Grill. Hers was typical of the dozens of letters and e-mails that came to the newspaper in response to a story in the Oct. 29 issue of WomanNews.
The Associated Press story was about what the writer called “a winning streak that is deeply troubling to abortion-rights activists” by “the self-proclaimed right-to-life movement and its conservative allies.”
As those partial quotes from the lead paragraph suggest, the story itself was hardly a textbook example of fairness and impartiality. But what provoked the ire of Sharon Grill and her fellow letter-writers were the headlines. In some editions the headline read, “Anti-choice groups celebrate victories.” In others it was “Anti-choice victories alarm pro-choice groups.”
In either case, the flaw was the same: The perspective of those who define the issues involved in terms of “choice” was taken as normative, and the position of those who disagree with them and define the issues differently was characterized in “choice” terms. The result was two headlines that couldn't have been more slanted if they had come directly from the public relations office of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
WomanNews editor Cassandra West said any bias in the headlines was completely unintentional, and the use of the term “anti-choice” was “just a poor choice of words on deadline.”
But this WomanNews story is not the only recent example of the difficulty the Tribune has in writing about the issue of abortion or, if you will, “life” or “choice.”
On Sept. 7, there was the publication in the Voice of the people of a letter from Bill Beckman, executive director of the Illinois Right to Life Committee, in which each of his uses of “pro-life” was changed to “anti-abortion,” to conform to the Tribune stylebook proscription against use of the term pro-life.
Happily, editor Ann Marie Lipinski has since decided that that rule need not be applied to letters to the editor.
More recently, on Oct. 22, the day after the Senate gave final approval to the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, the Tribune carried this banner headline on Page 1: “Senate votes to ban type of abortion.”
Huh? This odd, opaque locution was the result of several factors, including a headline space too small in any case to accommodate in single quotes the words partial-birth abortion, much less the medical term intact dilation and extraction.
But at least as important was the Tribune stylebook provision on abortion, which advises, among other things: “Avoid loaded terms, such as partial-birth abortion; use certain late-term abortions or give the medical term when practical.”
Mitchell May, chief of the national-foreign copy desk, said writing this headline was “definitely a case where we had to stay straight down the middle.”
Leaving aside whether our stylebook policy really does steer us “straight down the middle” — why, for example, is “pro-life” forbidden but “pro-choice” is not? — it merits asking whether we have become so obsessed with what we believe to be neutrality on this topic that we have become inscrutable.
After nearly a decade of fevered national debate on this issue, Americans on all sides know what is meant by “partial-birth abortion” (and a substantial majority of them oppose it, even as a majority support a general right to abortion). If our purpose is to communicate clearly with our readers, should we not use the term they understand?