Sunday, August 28, 2005

Media Bias: The New York Times on Partial Birth Abortion

A long and balanced article on media bias, taken from the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, appears on the Get Religion blog.

(The name of the blog, by the way, is based CNN political analyst Bill Snider’s comment that “The press . . . just doesn’t get religion.”)

The author, a veteran journalist at Newsweek, explains how the social biases of reporters, which are amplified by a liberal newsroom culture, create a general pro-abortion bias. He then goes further to discuss the special case of partial birth abortion.
But the term “partial-birth” presents a special set of difficulties, especially for a news organization like the Times that is committed to unrestricted abortion rights. The first problem is not that “partial-birth” is an inaccurate definition of the procedure. The term is listed and defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which is used by the websites of the National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School, among other medical institutions and organizations. Rather, the problem is that the term was appropriated by politicians who initiated the first congressional effort to ban the procedure and was quickly adopted by anti-abortion organizations. In this procedure, the physician typically pulls the fetus/baby legs first outside the mother’s body and then, using scissors, reaches inside the birth canal to break the skull, causing it to collapse. The brains are then sucked out and the fetus/baby removed entirely from the mother. “Partial-birth” as a label emphasizes the fact the delivery of a fetus/baby takes place, but only up to a point, and solely for the purpose of destroying it.

Once the details of this abortion procedure were made public, the opposition to it was no longer limited to groups and politicians who oppose all abortions. Various polls show that most Americans opposed it by margins of up to two to one.
In our classes, we discuss this issue under the topic of “the media sometimes withholds information from readers and viewers.”

We ask students to raise their hands if they know what partial birth abortion is. Usually, about half do. We then describe it. The reaction, from students who didn’t know what it was, is usually revulsion. Indeed, one of the greatest moments of our teaching career was watching a young woman who had been an outspoken liberal (including a liberal on the abortion issue) react in wide-eyed horror when the procedure was described.

So how does the media handle this? Many outlets, including most especially the New York Times simply refuse to use the term “partial-birth abortion.” The article continues:
From the outset, the Times determined to avoid using “partial-birth” in its news headlines. A computer search of the newspaper’s database since June of 1995 shows how persistently this prohibition has been enforced. Only once, on a news story published in April 2004, has “partial-birth” appeared in a headline. Instead, the Times has employed whenever possible a selection of opaque substitutes. The most frequently used terms were “type of” abortion and “form of” abortion, abortion “method” or “procedure” or “technique,” or simply a generic abortion “ban” or “curb.” Here is a sample of Times headlines, chosen for their variety of usages and published between 1995 and 2004:
  • House Acts To Ban Abortion Method, Making It a Crime
  • President Vetoes Measure Banning Type of Abortion
  • U.S. Judge in San Francisco Strikes Down Federal Law Banning Form of Abortion
  • Bush Signs Ban on a Procedure for Abortions
Anyone who has ever written a headline knows that a way could be found in most of these examples to use “partial-birth.” From my computer analysis, I think it is obvious that the Times regards “partial-birth” as a toxic term.
If the Times used the term “partial-birth abortion” people might ask “do you mean the baby is already partially born when the abortion takes place?”

That’s not the kind of question the pro-abortion crowd wants people to ask.

The media can be very self-righteous about the “peoples’ right to know.” But in this case, they don’t want the public to know.


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