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Abortion Blinds The Guardian: The Media Project, November 5, 2014 November 5, 2014

Posted by geoconger in Press criticism, The Media Project.
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Advocacy journalism succeeds when a reader does not perceive he is being led. The best writers of this genre, like George Orwell, do not disguise their opinions. They win over readers by persuasion, not by compulsion. A blistering screed may excite those predisposed to support the author’s point of view, but they seldom convert the undecided.

An article in The Guardian on the forthcoming Tennessee vote on Amendment 1, which if adopted would toughen the state’s abortion laws, comes to its topic from the point of view that legal restrictions on abortion are wrongheaded. It takes the editorial line that Tennessee voters should reject the amendment.

That The Guardian would oppose Amendment 1 is no surprise. But the way in which the article pushes the pro-abortion agenda does not advance or explain the story. Nor does article even seem aware of the story it has in hand. Its relentless cheerleading in support of abortion deafens it to the subtlety of the arguments offered by pro-abortion supporters, who are seeking to turn the arguments of anti-abortion advocates against themselves. However, all of this is lost, drowned by the continuous howl of The Guardian in favor of abortion at any time, for any woman, for any reason, anywhere in the world.

The news “hook” the article takes is presenting the issue through the lens of religion. The lede begins:

The Reverend Dr Judy Cummings likes to say she speaks for the underclass – for the African Americans locked in poverty in Buena Vista, a neighbourhood cut off from the rest of this prospering city by a ribbon of freeways, industrial blight and neglect.

It’s for them Cummings has become one of the leading voices of opposition to Amendment 1, a ballot initiative that would overturn Tennessee’s powerful protections for abortion rights, enshrined since a 2000 court decision. The proposal’s passage would hurt not just poor women and their children in Nashville, she believes. It also would affect thousands of women living beyond Tennessee’s borders who have come to rely on abortion providers in Nashville for services they can’t get in their home states.

The article lays out Tennessee’s stance as an outlier on abortion in the middle South with court imposed laws that exceeds the requirements of federal law turning the state into an abortion hub. Or, to borrow the New York Times’ phrasing, Tennessee is the “abortion capital of the Bible Belt.” The article illustrates these arguments with quotes and views from pro-abortion advocates.

“This issue right here is not about whether we believe in abortion or not,” Cummings said at a rally of liberal ministers earlier this month. “It’s a justice issue. When politicians try to take away the voice of the people, that’s an injustice. And we’re called on to do justice.”

The article quotes spokesmen for the Tennessee Right to Life Campaign and the American Civil Liberties Union on the bill, but the religious voices we hear in this story all come from one side — the pro abortion side.

If one comes to this story with no knowledge of the religious and cultural landscape of Tennessee, like most Guardian readers — they might conclude that religious voices in Tennessee are behind the pro-abortion vote.

We do have one nod to reality when the article states Republicans and religious conservatives control the state legislature. But the picture painted by The Guardian is one where the pro-abortion argument is the moral and theological choice.

Conveying that message to Tennesseans has been a delicate task. While commentators in other parts of the country tend to place access to abortion among other women’s rights or even argue it’s a social good, Vote No on 1 campaigners more often attack the amendment on libertarian, pragmatic or even theological grounds.

Ministers such as Cummings argue the amendment will interfere with their ability to counsel congregants who have gone through abortions. Were abortion illegal, they argue – with repurposed pro-life claims that developing foetuses are able to suffer pain –then those foetuses with birth defects would needlessly suffer in utero were abortion illegal.

No religious voices are heard in this story that address these sorts of claims. The article is illustrated with two photos of anti-abortion buttons and posters in Catholic settings, butThe Guardian chose not to offer arguments from morality or theology that counter the pro-abortion moral and theological arguments.

Setting aside the issue of abortion entirely, The Guardian appears not to have done its homework about the political issues in this fight. Tennessee’s abortion laws are the result of an activist state Supreme Court nullifying the will of the people on this topic. Yet The Guardian places at the top of this story a quote that says:

“It’s a justice issue. When politicians try to take away the voice of the people, that’s an injustice. And we’re called on to do justice.”

Politicians have not taken away the voice of the people, judges have — supporters of the amendment have been saying. Could it be The Guardian’s reporter is so tone deaf or ignorant of the issues in this race that they misunderstood the significance of this quote?

Might not the liberal minister be altering one of the oppositions slogans to voice her own views? Should not The Guardian have asked? Should not it even have been aware of what was going on?

And, what sort of minister is the person to whom they have given so much space in their story? What church? What denomination? Is she a parish minister or a chaplain? What is the stance of her denomination on this issue? Is she a Christian minister or something else?

This story is a mess. An example of how not to report a contentious issue. It is unbalanced, incurious, strident and grossly unaware of the political, religious and cultural context of the story. It is a screed — and apart from the true believer, I doubt anyone will listen.

First printed at The Media Project.

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