Allegations of Media Bias on Abortion

The media's normal rules on objectivity and fairness seem to suffer badly from the 'abortion distortion' factor. One side gets called "pro- choice," the other gets called "anti- abortion."

  • The debate is framed in terms favourable to one side.
  • Events favourable to one side are ignored or given minimal attention.
  • Individuals on one side of the controversy are portrayed more favourably.
  • Commentary is slanted against one side.
  • Minimal coverage is given to complications and deaths resulting from abortion
From the time abortion became legal, opponents to abortion have complained that they have been unfairly disadvantaged by a pervasive liberal media bias.

They claim that they and their cause have generally been portrayed negatively, whilst abortion-rights advocates have received sympathetic treatment by being identified with' enlightened' social policy and women's rights.

The published research is confined to the United States, but can easily be applicable to media coverage in the rest of the western world. The available research shows that there may be some substance to these allegations.

"The Media Elite"
In 1979 and 1980, researchers professors Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman conducted hour-long interviews with 240 members of the leading media establishments in the U.S., including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Time and Newsweek magazines, U.S.News and world Report, news departments at CBS, NBC, PBS and all of the major public broadcasting stations.

Their studies included a cross-section of the professions at each corporation: reporters, department and bureau heads, syndicated columnists, anchormen, producers, news executives, and correspondents.
Most major newspapers support abortion rights and studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favour abortion rights.

He quoted abortion-rights leader Frances Kissling, executive director of Catholics for a Free Choice: "Abortion coverage has been very shallow and superficial. There's been very little investigative reporting, very little looking behind some of the statements of either side. No attempt to give people the kind of information they need to make intelligent decisions."

In his summing up at the end of the four-part series, Shaw begins with a quote on television:

?Television rakes off the emotional energy on abortion, providing the passions, lots of demonstrations, people yelling, very colourful sound bites, and the print media provide the political and legal arguments on both sides,' says Robert Lichter, co-director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, ?but no one gives you context.'

"Critics often say much the same thing about media coverage of other important issues, just as they accuse the media of bias on other issues. But abortion is an especially sensitive, complex and volatile issue, and just as some journalists do seem to have more trouble keeping their personal feelings from unfairly influencing their stories on abortion than on other issues, so coverage of abortion does seem more superficial and lacking in perspective than does coverage of other issues."
"These guys, media elites... can practically go for a whole lifetime and never run into anybody who has a different point of view than they have on all the big social issues."

Covering the story
"So when reporters go out and cover stories on these big hot social issues, they don't go out to learn what this side thinks and what that side thinks. They already have their take on these issues, and their take is overwhelmingly a liberal take on these issues."

"And then they go out and they interview somebody ? and the conservative point of view is very often the other side of the argument. There is a main side and an other side. The main side in affirmative action, for instance, is that affirmative action is a wonderful thing. The main side in gay marriage is who would be against gay marriage except some bigot. And then they go out and they find that other side. Because otherwise it would be so blatantly biased that they couldn't get away with it."

Abortion coverage in New Zealand
After the 1967 Abortion Act became law in Britain, the debate was argued through the pages of New Zealand newspapers into the 1970s.

Wayne Facer, then the research officer for the Abortion Law Reform Association, employed a press cutting service to collect any news item covering abortion. He then collated these cuttings in date order, into 39 volumes of large scrap books, which are held in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. They comprise a remarkable historical record of the abortion debate in New Zealand.
Newspapers were scrupulous in the early years in ensuring balance and space for the debate.

It is clear that newspapers (both national and provincial) were scrupulous in those early years in ensuring balance and space for the debate. Both sides were given extensive room to put their case to the New Zealand public.

The change came in tandem with the new feminist movement and the Sisters Overseas Service which arranged for NZ women to fly to Sydney for abortions.

Personal stories of the trauma involved in seeking these abortions began to appear.

The groundbreaking women's magazine "Thursday", under the editorship of Marcia Russell, who was committed to abortion law reform, regularly featured 'hard case' stories (where the woman was pregnant as a result of rape, incest, the baby had an abnormality, or there were other extreme circumstances). In the late 1970s, she helped produce a sympathetic television documentary on the Auckland Medical Aid Trust abortion clinic in Epsom.

Shown on prime-time, the vacuum aspiration method of abortion was pictured with the foetus represented by a circle of dots and referred to as "the products of conception."

Through the late 1970s and 80s, SPUC lodged numerous complaints about alleged media bias to the Press Council and television administrators, but these were not upheld.
Complaints were made of "a carefully contrived campaign of misrepresentation that has been conducted throughout the country since Parliament passed the new law (CS&A Act)."

Most of the complaints were about how legislative changes were presented to the public. Both the Prime Minister (Robert Muldoon) and the Minister of Justice in 1978, complained of "a carefully contrived campaign of misrepresentation that has been conducted throughout the country since Parliament, not the Government, passed the new law (CS&A Act)."

Through the 1990s, abortion was rarely mentioned, save for the annual report of the Abortion Supervisory Committee. TV One's current affairs flagship Assignment, produced a one-hour documentary on abortion in NZ, which was generally seen as fairly representing both sides of the issue.

In September, 2004, TV One screened the controversial BBC documentary "My Foetus", produced by Julia Black. It was preceded three day earlier by TV One's "Sunday" programme which featured the controversy over "My Foetus" and the new 3D/4D ultrasound scanning technology.

For the first time in the abortion debate, New Zealanders were able to see pictures of "aborted babies." "Sunday" was noteworthy for its even-handed treatment of the issue, and Julia Black's documentary appeared to be a genuine attempt to address areas that had previously been omitted.

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