Institutionalizing Journalistic Bias

Have you ever noticed that news stories about abortion always describe pro-lifers as “antiabortion activists,” and pro-abortion people as “abortion rights activists?”

In a story about the Commonwealth of Virginia's attempt to enact a partial birth abortion law, the November 2 Washington Post describes a hearing in which two Clinton-appointed judges “stopped short” Virginia's Solicitor General William E. Thro, who was defending Virginia's law. 

The story is fair insofar as both sides of the abortion issue are represented in the story, and reporter Robert Barnes identifies the two Clinton-appointed judges and the dissenting Bush-appointed judge on the panel.  But throughout the story, Barnes describes the two sides in the abortion debate as “antiabortion activists” and “abortion rights activists.” 

These are loaded terms.  Readers are more receptive to people described as “for” something, especially “rights,” than to people described as “anti” something.  The use of this loaded language throughout the story inspired this writer to find out whether these terms are personal choices or “required writing” for journalists reporting on abortion.

The answer lies in The Associated Press Stylebook, “the bible of the newspaper industry.”  The latest version of the Stylebook, published this year, contains the following entry:


Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.  Avoid abortionist, which connotes a person who performs clandestine abortions.

This entry did not exist in the 1984 or 1994 editions of the Stylebook.

For those who aren't professional journalists, the AP Stylebook is indeed “the bible” for newspaper reporters.  Most newspapers consider the AP Stylebook to be the final authority on everything from how to hyphenate to when to capitalize nouns. 

And the final authority in journalism has declared that reporters must use the terminology preferred by leftists to describe one of the major fronts in the culture war – abortion.  Talk about institutionalized bias.

Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the MediaResearchCenter.