February 09, 2005

Example: Media Bias on Abortion

This CNN.com article, about pro-life DNC chair candidate Roemer withdrawing to make Dean the last active candidate, is a perfect example of the subtle bias that exists in many media. I referred to it in this post a few days ago. Here's the relevant section:

Roemer said he hoped to make the party more inclusive, especially on the issue of abortion. He opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother.

His opposition to abortion rights sparked early opposition in the race from abortion choice advocates.


In the second sentence, Roemer is said to 'oppose' abortion except in some circumstances. That's an accurate and fair summary, but the problem is that it's almost always stated as an opposition. There is never a positive summary of a pro-lifer - "He believes that abortion is an unjust taking of human life" or otherwise stating pro-life beliefs as support FOR something instead of opposition AGAINST something. Being stated in the negative repeatedly has one obvious result: the lack of a coherent program or affirmative idea, just opposition to the status quo or opposition to change. There's a word for the lack of a positive idea yet the presence of a strongly held negative one: reactionary.

Now, obviously, this is a subtle example. The wording of a single sentence in a single article isn't going to trash the entire pro-life movement. However, repeated characterizations from the AP, Reuters, the New York Times and other widely-reported organizations can lead to the impression that the pro-life movement exists in opposition to abortion but without any genuine principled objections or alternatives.

The final sentence: His opposition to abortion rights sparked early opposition in the race from abortion choice advocates.

This one is also factually accurate and hardly significant from one line in one article. However, look at the orientation - again, pro-lifers are 'opponents' while pro-choicers are 'advocates.' The pro-lifers OPPOSE the status quo, while pro-choicers ADVOCATE for their beliefs. If repeated over and over, it sends a subtle, but real message: pro-lifers are reactionary. Again, I don't want to overblow it, but it is a persistent problem.

What if that last sentence had been: His support for the rights of the unborn sparked early opposition in the race from fetal rights opponents.

Notice how, aside from the political change, this sentence does not repeat the word 'opposition' only six words apart. The original sentence awkwardly reused the same word in two different contexts, simply to make sure that pro-lifers could be described as opposing abortion rights. Here's a simple way so that both sides get a positive description:

His support for the rights of the unborn sparked early opposition in the race from abortion choice advocates.

I'm not saying every line of every article has to be perfect. That would be absurd. But when a long succession of articles in a huge number of publications continually refer to pro-lifers in a negative context -anti-abortion, anti-choice, opponents- it cultivates a reactionary image, while pro-choicers get a much more positive context -pro-rights, pro-choice, advocates- it cultivates a principled image.

So I'm not going to say that everybody has to watch every word they type on the subject, but I do think it's clear that the long-term view from media reporting is a subtle, persistent bias against the pro-life position.

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