Media Bias and Abortion Language

In a recent essay in the August 10 New York Times magazine titled, “Two-Minus-One Pregnancy,” author Ruth Padawar discusses cases where a pregnant woman chooses to “reduce twins to a singleton.” The expectant mother, after choosing not to endure the extra burden of raising twins, aborts one of the fetuses.
Except, technically, she does not abort the fetus. Instead, a doctor inserts a long needle into her abdomen. Then, using a sonogram, he directs the needle into the chest of one of the fetuses and injects it with potassium chloride, quickly killing it. The body of the dead fetus remains in the womb and shrivels during the remainder of the pregnancy. It is removed during the live birth of its twin.

Although the above description uses the word “kill,” the New York Times author does not. Instead, she uses euphemisms such as “extinguish,” “eliminate,” and “reduce to a singleton.”

Such language is par for the course when the media discusses abortion. As I document in "Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind," journalists overwhelmingly adopt the language of “pro-choice” and “abortion rights” advocates over the language of “pro-life” advocates.

To see how thoroughly pro-choice advocates have influenced the language of journalists, imagine a counter-universe—one where advocates of other issues exert similar influence over the language of journalists. In such a world journalists would not describe John Boehner’s position as “pro- tax cut. “ Instead, they would note that he is “pro-choice” on tax cuts. After all, under his plan, if people want to pay their former higher tax rate, they can still send a check to the U.S. Treasury. Mobsters would not favor murder, but would be described as “pro- revenge-killing rights.” Jefferson Davis would be, not “pro- slavery,” but “pro-choice” on slavery, or “pro-slave owner rights.” After all, he did not advocate that all white people own a slave; only that they have that right.

"Left Turn" contains a systematic statistical analysis to document the bias in the abortion language of journalists. Specifically, it analyzes how journalists described partial-birth abortion, shortly after the U.S. Senate voted to ban the procedure.

Although some journalists called the procedure by its direct name “partial-birth abortion,” the vast majority of them used unwieldy phrases such as “what opponents of the procedure call partial-birth abortion.”

The research compared the language of journalists to the language that senators used when they made speeches on the floor, just before casting votes on the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban bill. The language of the senators, it turns out, perfectly predicted their votes. That is, all senators who used the direct phrase “partial birth abortion” voted for the ban. All senators who used another, unwieldy phrase (such as “what opponents of the procedure call partial birth”) voted against the ban.

Below is a table illustrating how 20 major national news outlets treated the partial-birth abortion ban—specifically whether they used the direct phrase, “partial birth,” or something else.

% of times the outlet called the procedure: ---------------------------

“partial- something Media Outlet birth” else ---------------------------------- ----------- ---------
---------------------------------- ----------- ---------
ABC World News Tonight 0 100
ABC Good Morning America 0 100
CBS Early Show 0 100
CBS Evening News 0 100
CNN Newsnight w/ A. Brown 0 100
NBC Today Show 0 100
New York Times 0 100
PBS Newshour w/ Jim Lehrer 0 100
Time Magazine 0 100
U.S. News & World Report 0 100
Washington Post 0 100
Los Angeles Times 14 86
NBC Nightly News 20 80
NPR Morning Edition 20 80
Wall Street Journal 25 75
USA Today 40 60
Newsweek 50 50
Drudge Report 60 40
Centrist – Ave. U.S. Senator 65 35
Washington Times 78 22
Fox News’ Special Report 100 0

The book deems a news outlet balanced, neutral, and centrist if it mimicked the language of a cross-section of the U.S. Senate. That is, since 65 percent of the Senate voted for the ban, the outlet is balanced, neutral, and centrist if 65 percent of the time it called the procedure “partial birth” and 35 percent of the time called it one of the more unwieldy phrases.

As the table illustrates, the Drudge Report, by a wide margin, is the most balanced, neutral and centrist of all the news outlets. Meanwhile, 18 of the 20 outlets are biased on the “pro-choice” side. Only two are biased on the “pro-life” side.

Note, however, that the definition of “balanced, neutral, and centrist” might be overly charitable to mainstream journalists.

Instead, one could insist that journalists use the most accurate and direct language, not to mimic a cross-section of U.S. senators. After all, the phrase that the actual bill used was “partial birth.” Never did the bill call the procedure anything like “what opponents of the procedure call partial birth.” If so, then only Special Report is balanced, neutral, and centrist. All the others—including The Washington Times and the Drudge Report—have a liberal bias. That is, they err on the side of using language of pro-choice advocates.

Another striking result is that most of the outlets never used the simple, direct term, “partial birth abortion.” Instead, they always used more unwieldy phrases.

With these outlets, their choice of language is especially peculiar. Even when they don’t have an alternative phrase, they still could not deign to use the language of conservatives.

No matter what one’s view on abortion, one can’t deny that “twin reduction” and partial-birth abortion involve gruesome and ghastly procedures. It’s time that the media—when describing these procedures, as well as abortion policy in general—began using more direct and accurate language.

Tim Groseclose is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at UCLA and author of "Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind."