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MediaWatch: January 1989

Vol. Three No. 1

Study: Networks Prefer "Pro-Choice," Not "Pro-Life"

"Pro-choice groups said today that their battle is not over," NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw announced on November 10. Reporter Andrea Mitchell then proceeded to detail the actions of "anti- abortion activists" and "abortion opponents" in election day referenda on public abortion funding. "Pro-choice activists," she said, were "very worried about Bush and Quayle." NBC's story, and its use of labels to describe the two sides in the abortion debate, typified network news coverage of the issue during the last four months of 1988.

Objective reporting dictates that journalists adhere to balance in their use of labels. For example, use "pro-life" and "pro-choice," or "anti-abortion" and "pro-abortion," or offer an equal number of positive and negative labels on each side. But a MediaWatch study reveals that when it came to stories on abortion, the networks ignore all standards of objectivity.

MediaWatch reviewed all stories that discussed abortion aired on ABC World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, CNN PrimeNews, and NBC Nightly News.

MediaWatch found 49 stories that included labels. With 87 mentions, the "anti-abortion" tag was used most often by reporters or anchors, with another 5 references to "abortion foes." The terms "pro-life" or "right to life" were used only 24 times, less than one-third as often.

How did they label abortion supporters? The networks' were far more sympathetic. Only once were those groups called "pro-abortion." Instead, they were called the term they prefer, "pro-choice," 19 times. Thirteen other times, they were given euphemistic labels such as "abortion rights advocates," "family planning advocates" or "birth control advocates." In other words, the "pro-choice" forces wee designated by their preferred label 97 percent of the time. The "pro-life" forces were afforded their desired label only 21 percent of the time.

Some networks were less objective than others. For instance, NBC used the "anti-abortion" label 17 times, while using the "pro-life" label just once. When it came to abortion proponents, htough, NBC reporters dubbed them "pro-choice" three times, "abortion rights" once, and "family planning advocates" twice. No one at NBC used the term "pro-abortion." CBS used "pro-life" labels most often -- 38 percent of the time -- but still gave a great advantage to abortion supporters, using positive, euphemistic terms to describe them 92 percent of the time.

Most abortion labels arose in three areas:

1) Judicial Decisions: On Nov. 11, CBS' Rita Braver informed viewers that a court ruling against federal abortion funding would please "anti-abortion" activists. Anchor Dan Rather characterized Roe vs. Wade as the Supreme Court's 15 year old ruling on "abortion rights." In a Dec. 20 report by NBC's Jim Miklaszewski, Jack Fowler of the Ad Hoc Committee in Defense of Life was captioned as an "anti-abortion activist." But in Andrea Mitchell's Nov. 10 report, pro-abortion spokeswoman Dottie Lamm was labeled simply as "wife of former governor" Richard Lamm.

2) Abortion Demonstrators: When pro-lifers taunted Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis on September 6, the networks presented the protestors as "anti-abortion activists." CNN's Tom Mintier called the demonstrators "pro-life," but only after a lead-in by anchor Bernard Shaw labeled them "anti- abortion" three times. That same night, NBC's Chris Wallace outlined the candidates' positions on abortion. Bush, he said, "opposes abortion," while Dukakis is "pro-choice."

The efforts of Operation Rescue protestors did not go unnoticed by the networks, but again the labeling favored abortion advocates. On October 4, NBC's Kenley Jones followed anchor Tom Brokaw's introduction about the arrest of "anti-abortion protestors" by remarking that "abortion rights advocates" believed the demonstrators had little effect. CBS' James Hattori gave perhaps the most even-handed report on October 29, referring to the two sides as "pro-life" and "pro-choice."

3) Medical Developments: ABC's George Strait remarked without irony that an abortifacient pill, opposed by "anti-abortion groups," could be "a lifesaver" in the Third World. On Sept. 15, CBS' Susan Spencer characterized the debate over fetal research as a battle between "science" and the "anti-abortion movement."

A controversial social issue such as abortion demands even-handed treatment. The networks have proven themselves incapable of this task. By their biased use of labels to characterize the two sides of the issue, reporters have unfairly colored the national debate on abortion.