Volume 18 Number 1, 2008
A Woman’s (and Man’s?) Right to Choose: Journalists’ Language Choices in News about Abortion
Cindy J. Elmore
Despite outnumbering males in US journalism schools for three decades, females are still not proportionately represented in the nation’s newsrooms, comprising just 33% (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes, & Wilhoit, 2003) to 37.5% (Diversity slips in U.S. newsrooms, 2007) of newspaper journalists. Weaver et al. noted that this share is far lower than the 49.8% proportion of women in the overall managerial and professional workforce in the US in 2000. Numerous feminist scholars say there are also “systemic biases” against women in journalism (Robinson, 2005, p. 1), power imbalances that disadvantage women (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003), and a strong male culture in the newsroom (Chambers, Steiner, & Fleming, 2004). Even more, women journalists surveyed in the 1990s said sexual discrimination and sexual harassment were still persistent in many newsrooms, both by news sources and by male co-workers (Walsh-Childers, Chance, & Herzog, 1996a; Walsh-Childers, Chance, & Herzog, 1996b). Perhaps that is why Weaver et al.’s (2003) latest national decennial survey of journalists found that the news media have problems “attracting and retaining enough women” even though women with less than five years of experience in journalism outnumbered comparably experienced men. Together, these phenomena suggest a high turnover among women journalists, which Valian (1998) might find unsurprising. While her research did not focus specifically on journalism, she posits that “gender schemas” (p. 104) held by both men and women serve to result in the overrating of males in professional work and the underrating of female professionals on the job. Valian added that whatever emphasizes a man’s gender on the job gives him a small advantage, while whatever accentuates a woman’s gender serves to hinder her in professional work.
Yet, such an emphasis on gender has, historically, been difficult for female journalists to avoid in what is still a male dominated profession. For much of the period since women entered journalism in the mid to late 19th century, they have been relegated to covering issues believed to be solely or primarily of interest to women, and therefore, not important enough to be covered by male journalists (Chambers et al., 2004), who historically covered politics, sports, business, crime, and war. Female journalists who fought these restrictions faced either being “branded as personally deviant,” or, if they accepted the limitations, they were “professionally marginalized” (Chambers et al., 2004, p. 24). Steering women journalists onto certain “beats” serves to exclude and classify them as “different,” which Robinson (2005) contends is then used to justify treating women differently (p. 82).
Several scholars have established that many important doors to journalism have been opened to females primarily for commercial or financial imperatives, not due to a quest for gender parity. This occurred first in the late 19th century, when it was believed that female reporters could produce newspaper and magazine articles that would appeal to female readers, whom advertisers wanted to reach (Chambers et al., 2004). It happened again during World War II, when female journalists were needed to fill the positions held by male journalists who left their jobs in large numbers to fight in the war (Lont, 1995). In television news, many women anchors were added in the 1970s and 1980s more because of marketing research rather than a desire for gender fairness (Allen, 2003). Even in recent years, Chambers, et al. (2004) posit that females are exploited in media work to produce both stories aimed at encouraging “consumerism” by women readers (p. 217) (see also Bradley, 2005) as well as a kind of “confessional” journalism believed to attract female readers and, therefore, advertisers (Chambers et al., 2004, p. 218).
Even so, the low representation of women in journalism is important because, some scholars contend, female journalists carry out the selection, reporting, sourcing, writing, and/or editing of news differently from males (see, for example, Beasley, 1993; Bradley, 2005; Callwood, 1990; Chambers et al., 2004; Daugherty, 2002; Enda, 2002; Kahn & Goldenberg, 1991; Knight, 1998; Mills, 1988; Pedelty, 1997; Peiser, 2000; Ricchiardi & Young, 1991; Ricchiardi, 1994; D. H. Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996; Zoch & Turk, 1998). Sometimes, these differences are said to have occurred because women journalists lacked access to the more traditional news sources, as was the case during both World Wars I and II. Some female journalists sent to Europe parlayed their non-access to the front lines into an opportunity to report on the impact of the wars on civilian populations. Yet, this served to broaden the topics deemed newsworthy beyond what had been the typical war reporting of the time (Chambers et al., 2004). This happened again when male journalists reclaimed their old newspaper and wire service jobs from female journalists after World War II. Sent back to the “women’s sections,” some female journalists used their broadened skills and interests to expand the issues covered on those pages during the 1950s and 1960s to include social issues that had not previously been in the news (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003; Chambers et al., 2004; Mills, 1988).
To be sure, some scholars contend that female journalists have assumed the norms of the predominantly male news media culture, and this limits or eliminates gender differences in media content (Biagi & Kern-Foxworth, 1997; Creedon, 1993; Gist, 1993; Splichal & Garrison, 2000). Others grant that evidence is mixed over whether or not journalists carry out or direct journalism that differs according to their gender (Beasley & Gibbons, 2003; Chambers et al., 2004; Robinson, 2005). Given the mixed opinions, this study examines news coverage about the issue of abortion and explores whether or not there are differences in the coverage of abortion on the basis of journalist gender. Because abortion affects women’s lives in a way that it does not affect men, this study will explore whether or not news coverage by female journalists about abortion differs from that of their male counterparts. For instance, women have been shown to be more likely than men to include abortion on their list of “policy agendas” (Schlozman, Burns, Verba, & Donahue, 1995, p. 267). Abortion also “figures more prominently in the issue priorities of women than men, regardless of race or ethnicity,” Schlozman et al. continued (p. 283). Therefore, given the long history of male dominated news staffs and the varied opinions of scholars about any gender differences in the practice of journalism, several research questions are proposed. First, given that abortion is an issue that uniquely affects women’s bodies, it is illustrative to learn whether the coverage of abortion falls proportionately in line with newsroom gender breakdowns. Therefore, the following research question is proposed:
RQ1: What is the proportion of male and female reporters writing about abortion?
In 1989 and 1992, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (Roe v. Webster: Media coverage of the abortion debate, 1989; Abortion rights and wrongs: Media coverage of the abortion debate 1991-92, 1992) examined major television network news programs, news magazines, The Washington Post and The New York Times for their use of the terms “abortion rights,” “anti-abortion,” “pro-choice,” “pro-life,” “pro-abortion,” and “right to life” in articles about abortion. This study will also examine what terms are used for the two “sides” in the abortion debate and determine whether or not there is a difference in male and female journalists’ use of the terms, asking:
RQ2: How do newspaper stories today label the two sides in the abortion debate, and do male and female journalists use predominantly different labels from one another?
As described in the literature review, numerous studies have found females are underrepresented in the news. Yet, studies also have found that female journalists are more likely than male journalists to include female sources in their stories (see, for example, Armstrong, 2004; Pedelty, 1997; D. H. Weaver & Wilhoit, 1996; Zoch & Turk, 1998). As a result, it is asked:
RQ3: Do more women or men appear as sources in news coverage of abortion, and is there a difference in source gender in accordance with the gender of the reporter?
Numerous studies also have determined the prominence given to selected sources by examining the first source named in a given news story (See, for example, ePolitics: A study of the 2000 presidential campaign on the internet, 2000; The gender gap: Women are still missing as sources for journalists, 2005; Election night 2006: An evening in the life of the American media, 2006; Duhe, 2005; Riffe, Lacy, & Fico, 1998). Since the first source in any given article is more likely to be read than subsequent sources, given that some readers drop off before completing a story, it is reasonable to ask whether female reporters were more likely than male reporters to select females for the prominent first-source position, and vice versa. Therefore, it is asked:
RQ4: Were female reporters any more likely than male reporters to include a woman as the first source in their articles about abortion?
Labels and sources provide part of the picture about the coverage of abortion in recent years. But it is also revealing to take a deeper look, through a qualitative textual analysis, to determine whether or not there are common themes or patterns in news articles about this important topic, and also to examine whether or not the use of those themes says anything in relation to the gender of the journalist authors. Therefore, it was asked:
RQ5: Do any common patterns or themes emerge in news coverage about abortion, and does a qualitative analysis yield any difference in these patterns according to the gender of the reporter?
A content analysis was conducted in order to examine news coverage about the issue of abortion and to seek out whether or not there are gender differences in news articles about this contentious issue. While the earlier-described CMPA studies drew upon newsmagazines, television news programs, The Washington Post and The New York Times, this study examined the coverage of abortion solely in newspapers. A random numbers generator was used to select eight of the 29 U.S.-based general interest newspapers available in the LexisNexis Academic database. Newspapers selected included the Houston Chronicle, (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, The Boston Globe, (New York) Daily News, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Buffalo News.
A search was conducted for all articles from these newspapers that contained the word “abortion” in the LexisNexis database option of “headline, lead paragraph, terms” in articles from one representative Sunday per month (three first Sundays, three second Sundays, three third Sundays, and three fourth Sundays of the month in each year) during the six-year period of Jan. 1, 2000 to Dec. 31, 2005. Sunday editions were selected because it is on that day that more in-depth stories often are found. Articles were eliminated if they were clearly labeled as editorials or opinion pieces, letters to the editor, book reviews, or if they were “briefs” containing no byline. All remaining articles were coded according to the gender of the author(s). For article bylines containing a first name that could have belonged to either gender, such as “Jo” or “Pat” or unfamiliar foreign-origin names, either the reporter named or an editor was contacted to determine the correct gender. Multiple-bylined articles were coded as “female” if all of the authors were female and were coded as “male” if all the authors were male. Those articles containing both male and female bylines were coded in a mixed category.
All human sources in each article were counted and coded according to gender. A source was defined as anyone who provided information used in the story, whether attributed by direct quote or paraphrase, and each source was counted one time, no matter how many times he or she appeared in the article. For sources whose gender could not be immediately determined by first name alone, an Internet search of the person named clarified the gender identity in most cases. In the few instances where information could not be found on the source, he or she was not counted in the study. Finally, each article was also coded for the appearance of nine abortion terms found by a pilot study to be most frequently in the news: pro-choice, pro-life, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, anti-choice, abortion rights, right to life, abortion opponent/foe, and reproductive choice/rights. It made no difference how many times or in what form each term appeared in each article; it the term appeared at all, it was coded as being present. A label was coded as being either present regardless of how many times in the article that it appeared and regardless of whether it appeared in a quote, in the name of an organization, or was just used in the author-written text. Even though a reporter has no choice to make about the use of a “label” when the formal name of an organization uses “pro-life” or some other specific abortion term, the reporter still has influence over which groups are named in the news. Moreover, even when a particular group has done something newsworthy that would always generate news coverage, its inclusion in the news still gives prominence to the particular abortion label that is incorporated. The same is true for the inclusion of quotes that include terms such as “pro-abortion.”
For the textual analysis of this study, each article was read multiple times and portions related directly to the issue of abortion were highlighted in the hopes of discovering common themes and concepts. Then those highlighted portions were re-read repeatedly in a process informed by some of the principles of grounded theory laid out by Glaser and Strauss (1965) and by Corbin and Strauss (1990). Glaser and Strauss (1965) argue that in doing qualitative research, the researcher actively looks for information that will verify simultaneous concepts as they develop during the course of the study. To that end, as some concepts were further developed, others were discarded or subdivided in this study. Both confirming and disconfirming information was sought in an effort to thoroughly add to or weed out workable and unworkable concepts and patterns. In the end, the concepts yielded were supported and substantiated with quotations and descriptions in multiple articles. It was the “repeated” presence of the concepts in multiple articles that lent them credibility and supported the effort to resist researcher preconceptions and conceptual favoritism (Corbin & Strauss, 1990, p. 7).
After eliminating duplicate articles, articles that were clearly labeled as editorials or opinion pieces, letters to the editor, book reviews, and unbylined “briefs,” 165 articles were coded from the eight newspapers, including 50 from The Boston Globe, 32 from the St. Louis Post- Dispatch, 22 from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 20 from the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, 12 from the (New York) Daily News, 11 from The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, 10 from the Houston Chronicle, and eight from The Buffalo News. Most of the articles (25.5%) were published in 2000, followed by 24.2% in 2005, 20% in 2004, 10.9% in 2002, and 9.7% each in 2001 and 2003. Overall, the articles incorporated numerous topics related to abortion, most of them related to elections, particularly at the state and federal level, and to the appointment of government officials and judges. Other frequent topics included the “partial-birth” abortion issue, embryonic stem cell research, various state legislative initiatives related to abortion such as waiting periods and parental notification laws, polls about American political views, the debate over assisted suicide and Terri Schiavo, Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, the search and arrest for the sniper killer of a New York abortion doctor, and several stories related to drugs that either can cause abortion, cause fetal deformities, or provide emergency contraception. Numerous other topics related to abortion also appeared, but less frequently. Sometimes abortion was mentioned in the story only in passing. Other times an issue related to abortion comprised the entire story. There were both news and feature stories in the sample.
RQ1: What is the proportion of male and female reporters writing about abortion?
Ninety-four articles (57%) contained all-male bylines, while 65 (39.4%) contained all-female bylines, with just six articles (3.6%) having male and female co-bylines.
RQ2: How do newspaper stories today label the two sides in the abortion debate, and do male and female journalists use predominantly different labels from one another?
The terms “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights” were the most used terms appearing in the sample of abortion articles. Some articles included more than one label for the same “side” in the abortion debate. For example, a Dec. 24, 2000 article in the Houston Chronicle about Bush cabinet appointments included three terms depicting or used by the anti-abortion side of the debate. The reporter wrote, “Anti-abortion groups, on the other hand, have criticized most of Bush’s appointments as being too moderate.” Later came this quote from the president of the American Life League: “What is emerging in the Bush list of appointees is nothing less than a smorgasbord of pro-abortion Republicans …” That was followed later by a description of then-EPA chief nominee Christine Todd Whitman as having “led the unsuccessful fight to purge the Republican Party platform of its ‘pro-life’ plank” (my emphasis, all). All three labels, plus one mention of “abortion rights,” were coded as present in the article (Reinert, 2000). Some articles included none of the coded labels at all, and some included a label for one side, but not for the other. Table 1 shows how often each abortion label appeared in the six-year sample.
Female reporters far more often included the term “anti-abortion” in their articles compared to male reporters. The label appeared in 43.1% of all female-authored stories compared to just 21.3% of all male-authored stories. Female reporters also far more often included the term “abortion opponent” or “abortion foe” in their articles than male reporters, and they included the term “reproductive choice/reproductive rights” more often, although this term was not greatly used by either gender. However, none of these differences was statistically significant. Table 2 contains the number and share of male- and female-authored articles including each of the labels coded.
Following the initial analysis, four terms that most often described or were most used by the abortion rights side were collapsed (pro-choice, anti-choice, abortion rights and reproductive choice) and were compared against five terms that most often described or were most used by the anti-abortion side (pro-life, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, right to life, and abortion opponent/foe). A significant difference was found using a t-test, t(38) = 2.945, p = 0.004, indicating that female reporters were more likely to include the combined anti-abortion side labels (M = 0.88, SD = 0.927) than were male reporters (M = 0.49, SD = 0.729).
RQ3: Do more women or men appear as sources in news coverage of abortion, and is there a difference in source gender in accordance with the gender of the reporter?
In the overall 165-article sample, the mean number of total sources per article was 4.14, with female reporters having slightly more sources per article (4.28) than did male reporters (4.07), but the difference was not significant. Overall, male sources dominated the news about abortion in this six-year sample, appearing 2.96 times per article overall, compared to 1.18 female source per article. Overall, only 20 articles (12.1%) in the 165-article sample did not contain any male sources, and 75 articles (45.5%) did not contain any female sources. The number of male sources per article ranged from 0 to 12, and the number of female sources per article ranged from 0 to 9. Table 3 illustrates the total number of sources and their gender breakdown. The gender of sources in abortion articles was then examined in relation to the gender of the authors. Female-authored articles contained 2.8 male sources per article compared to 3.04 in the male-authored articles. Female-authored articles contained 1.48 female sources per article compared to 1.04 in each male-authored article, but the difference was not statistically significant in either instance.
RQ4: Were female reporters any more likely than male reporters to include a woman as the first source in their articles about abortion?
Males not only dominated as sources overall in articles about abortion, but also dominated the prominent first-source position. In the overall sample, 70.9% of first sources were male, 24.8% of all first sources were female, and 4.2% of the articles did not contain any sources. Female reporters included a male as the first source in 63.1% of their articles, compared to 75.5% of the male-authored articles. Female reporters included a female as the first source in 29.2% of their articles, compared to 23.4% of the male-authored articles. The difference, however, in either gender choice, was not statistically significant.
RQ5: Do any common patterns or themes emerge in news coverage about abortion and does a textual analysis yield any difference in these patterns according to the gender of the reporter?
Eight themes and concepts emerged repeatedly in the overall sample of articles about abortion, including the following:
As previously stated, these concepts emerged in a textual analysis that was informed by grounded theory as laid out by Glaser and Strauss (1965) and by Corbin and Strauss (1990). Therefore there was no predetermined coding scheme, and the references counted in the concepts that emerged took different forms. Some emerged in quotes, some in paraphrases, some in the author’s own language, and some in the names of organizations. Some emerged numerous times in single articles. Some articles did not contain any of these themes.
This paper offered an in-depth look at news coverage of the issue of abortion in a random sample of mostly-large but geographically dispersed U.S. newspapers, with a specific interest in the gender of the reporters. To that end, this study examined the gender of article authors, the number and gender of sources included in articles about abortion, the terms that appeared most frequently to describe the two “sides” in the abortion debate, and the concepts and themes that emerged most frequently in articles about this contentious issue. Given that females make up only 33 percent (D. Weaver et al., 2003) to 37 percent (Diversity slips in U.S. newsrooms, 2007) of journalists at U.S. daily newspapers, and yet 39.4% of articles in this six-year sample were written by female journalists, it suggests that a slightly higher proportion of female reporters are choosing to write about or being assigned to write about the issue of abortion.
However, as has been proven in numerous studies, females remained underrepresented as sources in news coverage about this important issue. Male sources dominated the news about abortion in this six-year sample, appearing 2.96 times per article, which was two and a half times the rate of female sources. Readers of more than 45% of these articles about abortion would have found no quotes, views, or information provided from women included at all. According to some research, this is not unusual, even among news coverage about issues that uniquely affect women’s bodies. In her analysis of coverage of the silicone gel breast implant controversy in The New York Times during a two year period, Fabienne Darling-Wolf (1997) wrote, “Women were talked about a lot, but rarely talked to.” Most of the Times’ sources were “official” business and government sources, which, in effect, “worked to largely exclude women from the debate” (p. 92). Here, women seemed just as “largely excluded” from the debate about abortion in newspaper coverage.
In this study, male and female journalists did not differ significantly in the number of sources, the gender of sources, or the gender of the first, most-prominent source in articles about abortion, which was overwhelmingly male for both journalist genders. This is a departure from previous studies that have found female journalists more likely than male journalists to quote females as sources in their published work (See, for example, Armstrong, 2004; Pedelty, 1997). The male source favoritism showed up as well in the selection of the first, most prominent source position in the abortion articles. In the overall sample, 70.9% of first sources were male, 24.8% of all first sources were female, and 4.2% of the articles did not contain any sources. Given that many readers do not read to the end of many news articles (one rationale for the inverted pyramid style of news writing) this means the likelihood of the first source’s views or information being publicized is greater than it is for subsequent sources. In this abortion study, female reporters were statistically just as likely as male reporters to include a male as the most-prominent first-source mentioned in each news article. In female-authored articles, 63.1% had a male first source, compared to 75.5% of the male-authored articles. Similarly, female reporters were statistically just as unlikely to include a female as the first source. That occurred in just 29.2% of female-authored articles, compared to 23.4% male-authored articles. These results support those researchers who contend that the presence of women in the newsroom makes no difference in the treatment of women as news subjects or sources (See for example, Creedon, 1993; Gist, 1993). The female journalists in this sample seem to have adopted the prevailing news practices that have consistently privileged male prominence and voice.
This study also examined what labels are most often used to describe the two sides in the abortion debate and whether or not there is a difference in the likelihood of female or male reporters to use one or another. Nine separate labels were sought and coded in the articles about abortion, including anti-abortion, abortion rights, pro-choice, pro-life, abortion opponent/foe, right to life, pro-abortion, reproductive choice/rights, and anti-choice. Overall, “abortion rights” and “anti-abortion” by far emerged as the terms most frequently used by reporters in the sample overall, and by both male and female reporters. “Anti-abortion” appeared in 30.3% of all articles in this sample, and “abortion rights” appeared in 27.3% of all articles. “Pro-life” and “pro-choice” trailed far behind, appearing in 12.1% and 11.5% of all articles, respectively. This is consistent with the official decision by the Associated Press, in its 2000 Stylebook, to advise journalists to use the terms “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights” instead of others in the abortion debate (see Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law, 2000, p. 5).
While the two most used labels were the same as in the 1992 CMPA study, both appeared far less frequently. However, the top one and two—“anti-abortion” and “abortion rights,” respectively—remained the same in rank. In 1992, CMPA had found, overall, that reporters included the “anti-abortion” label 68% of the time and “abortion rights” 51% of the time. The next-ranked “pro-choice” and “pro-life/right-to-life” labels had a far greater presence in the 1992 study, at 47% and 32%, respectively. “Pro-life” and “right to life” were coded separately in the current newspaper study, but together would still have appeared in just 19.4 percent of all articles. In fact, all “labels” in general appear far less often in the 2000-2005 newspaper sample than in the 1992 CMPA newsmagazine and TV news study. It seems that newspaper reporters, or reporters today, may be trying more consciously to describe the debate over abortion without using labels to portray either side. For example, 55 articles in the sample at hand (33.3%) used none of the coded labels to describe the two sides in the abortion debate. (The CMPA study did not publish any count of abortion stories containing no labels.) A typical example of this would be this straightforward description in a Nov. 26, 2003 article by Don Plummer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about motions in the Eric Rudolph trial. Here the reporter wrote of the charges that Rudolph “… maimed a clinic nurse in the Jan. 29, 1998, bombing of a Birmingham women’s clinic that performs abortions.” Later in the article, Plummer wrote of charges that Rudolph bombed a “Sandy Springs abortion clinic…” (Plummer, 2003) (my emphasis).
In this study, no significant differences were found in the likelihood of male or female reporters to use any of the individual abortion labels. However, when the five labels describing or most frequently used by the anti-abortion “side” were combined (pro-life, pro-abortion, anti-abortion, right to life, and abortion opponent/foe), female reporters were found to be significantly more likely to use those terms. The two CMPA studies did not examine the use of abortion labels by gender. Instead, they examined reporter gender only in connection with anti-abortion or abortion rights “opinions quoted,” without any published description of the methodology used. The organization’s methodology, however, was later described and criticized as biased toward conservative views in one online Web site (Conservative media watch organizations alleging "liberal bias").In this study, a textual analysis also was conducted in an effort to seek out prevailing concepts or themes in news coverage about abortion, which has not been previously done. This analysis found eight separate concepts or themes that appeared with regularity in the sample of newspaper articles about abortion. Each will be described with examples from the articles to illustrate the themes and how they emerged. All italicized words in quotations contain my emphasis to highlight text that relates to the themes.
Abortion controversy as military metaphor. This theme appeared in eight male-authored articles, five female-authored articles, and 1 mixed-gender article, out of the 165-article sample. Words such as “targeted, forces, fighter, warrior, attack, mobilize to fight, fortresslike, opposing camps, battles, and opposition … exploded,” comprised the war metaphor in sentences in these news articles about abortion. More detailed phrases or sentences included this mention by a female reporter in The Boston Globe, where she wrote that abortion rights activists “have long considered (John) Ashcroft an opponent in the antiabortion crusade” (Kornblut, 2000). Reporter Carlos Campos quoted Georgia’s House Speaker calling a Republican congresswoman a “warrior for conservative causes” (Campos, 2005), and Bob Dart wrote that abortion rights activists believed their supporters would “mobilize to fight” President Bush’s reelection (Dart, 2004). This theme confirms considerable previous research that has similarly documented war or military metaphors appearing in other issues in the news (see Karlberg & Buell, 2005), and particularly with the use of this metaphor by male journalists (Knight, 1998).
Medical procedures and family planning. Under this theme, abortion was described with language that might be used in depicting other routine health or medical procedures, or was described in connection with discussion about contraception and family planning. This theme was much more prevalent than the military metaphor, appearing in 10 male- and 19 female-authored articles. Here, several medical terms or phrases were used repeatedly in conjunction with descriptions of abortion or abortion availability, such as “clinic services,” “the procedure,” “the attending physician,” “abortion services,” “the operation,” “the abortion patient,” or “medical emergencies.” For example, such descriptions appeared several times in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about the procedure now commonly known as “partial birth abortion.” Quoting one woman with late-term pregnancy problems who had the procedure, the article stated, “… this procedure has to remain legal … This is the only procedure I could have had due to my diabetes.” Later non-quotation examples in the article referred to “… the gruesome pictures and description of the procedure,” “an abortion procedure,” and “go through with the controversial procedure because the other late-term abortion techniques could have posed other risks” (Livermore, 2003). Another article described laws banning abortion in Nepal. It included this language by the reporter about how wealthy Nepalese women get around the ban and still have abortion access from “doctors sympathetic to the patients (who) disguise the procedures as medical emergencies” (Lloyd, 2000). Nancy Dillon of the Daily News quoted a New York nonprofit agency supporting abortion access, stating that an illegal abortion “is never as safe as a procedure done under a doctor’s supervision” (Dillon, 2005). A similar “normalization” of the abortion issue emerged when described in connection with contraception or family planning. Several of the references came in articles about the “Plan B” drug. Kerstin Gehmlich, for example, described a “morning-after pill” as, in her words, a form of “emergency contraceptive,” despite there being “protests from anti-abortion groups” (Gehmlich, 2002). Another article about emergency contraceptive pills quoted a supporter stating that if they were widely used, “the number of unintended pregnancies could be cut in half” (Kolata, 2000).
In this sample, female reporters by far more than male reporters chose to include information that mainstreamed abortion as a medical procedure or framed it in connection with discussion about family planning. Its inclusion broadens the debate about abortion away from the moral argument regarding the termination of a pregnancy and toward discussion about preventing pregnancy in ways other than sexual abstinence. The descriptions and phrases found here also serve to “mainstream” abortion with unemotional words that emphasize health or biology. This is a very different frame from articles that focus on the moral arguments around abortion, which often ignore the health and medical implications for pregnant women.
Extremist or foolish abortion foes. Under this theme, the anti-abortion movement or specific anti-abortion adherents were depicted as extremists or out of the mainstream, or information was provided to ridicule them. Also under this theme are stories where the reporter used quotation marks around the terms “pro-life,” “partial-birth,” or “morning after” (pill), or preceded them with the words “so-called” to highlight the terms as being specific to the groups that chose and perpetuate those labels. This theme appeared in seven male, 17 female and one mixed-gender articles in the sample. This theme included descriptions of anti-abortion demonstrators holding posters of aborted fetuses or posing a physical or emotional threat to abortion clinic workers or to doctors in their homes. One reporter included the detail that Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (is a) “teetotaling Mormon still married to his high school sweetheart, he opposes unfettered abortion rights,” (Dart, 2004). The details serve to highlight Reid’s personal life as being perhaps priggish or straitlaced, and as such, vastly different from the mainstream—then the description is juxtaposed with Reid’s views against abortion rights. There were also references and quotes about (abortion) “doctors getting murdered,” and information that a pastor in one antiabortion group had served prison time for bombing clinics. Articles also mentioned laws protecting abortion providers from having their homes picketed by protestors, reminding readers of the sometimes-extreme harassment by anti-abortion adherents. One article quoted a woman in Nepal who was against the legalization of abortion because, she believed, “if they do, all the families will become like brothels” (Lloyd, 2000), a quote which serves to show the excessive, improbable views of some who hold anti-abortion views. In a story about the shortage of pharmacies that carry the “Plan B” contraceptive drug, the reporter noted that WalMart refuses to carry it on moral grounds, yet, “they don’t preclude the sale of cigarettes or firearms” (Cuniberti, 2005), which expressly highlights the incongruity of those views. While this study found far more references to extreme anti-abortion adherents, six short references were found that seemed to depict abortion rights adherents or abortion rights in general as similarly out of the mainstream, although in a much more mild way. For instance, one described an abortion clinic administrator who possibly lied to Congress (Franck, 2005).Many of these examples contained extraneous information that was not central to the articles and could easily have been left out. Its presence suggests the reporters included the details in an effort to depict the distance from the mainstream that the anti-abortion opponents seemed to be located. Most Americans who hold anti-abortion views are not waving posters of dismembered fetuses at women trying to enter abortion clinics. Most are not putting people’s personal information on the Web to identify them as abortion clinic workers or patients. Most are not serving prison time for bombing abortion clinics. Yet the inclusion of such information serves to paint the anti-abortion side as being mostly or including many extremists.
Many of these articles also raised figurative eyebrows at the terms“pro-life,” “partial-birth,” or “morning after” (pill), by placing them in quotation marks or preceded by words such as “so called.” This serves to highlight the terms as being specific to the groups that chose and perpetuate those labels. One example occurred in an article by Lisa Livermore, in which she wrote of “a controversial late-term procedure that critics call ‘partial-birth’ abortion” (Livermore, 2003). Mary Leonard similarly wrote of “a procedure called partial-birth abortion by its foes” (M. Leonard, 2001), and “so-called partial birth abortion” in a subsequent article (M. Leonard, 2000a). Another reporter used similar language in describing emergency contraception as “Plan B, the so-called ‘morning-after’ pill” (McNamara, 2005). All of these phrases serve to, in a sense, mock the terms and those who use them. If the reporters accepted “partial birth abortion” as an undisputed, widely-accepted expression, they would have had no need for the quotation marks.
Conviction of abortion opponents. Repeatedly in these articles, anti-abortion adherents were described as being “staunch” or with other adjectives that emphasized the strength of their anti-abortion beliefs. Abortion rights advocates were far less likely to have been described in this way. Some of the quotes or descriptions included the “staunch anti-abortion position” (Campos, 2005), “a staunch abortion opponent” (Zremski, 2004), a “strict pro-life stand on abortion” (Walsh, 2000), “one of the leading anti-abortion crusaders” (Auster, 2003), “an evangelical Christian and staunch abortion opponent” (M. Leonard, 2001), “passionately opposes abortion rights” (Kiernan, 2000), “steadfast against abortion” (M. Leonard, 2000b), and more. Only five times were abortion rights adherents described with similar language, i.e., a “staunch defender of abortion rights” (Preer, 2003), “a passionate supporter of a woman’s right to choose” (Ebbert, 2002), “his solid support for abortion rights” (Mannies & Shesgreen, 2001), and “troop(ing) from office to office on Capitol Hill … to defy the antiabortion lobby” (M. Leonard, 2000b). That compared to 19 such references for anti-abortion adherents or groups. By far, most of the “staunch” references (for both sides) appeared in female-authored articles.
The strong tilt in the strength-of-conviction references to the anti-abortion side could mean that the movement or adherents do a better job of describing themselves and one another in that way, which then is picked up by journalists and boiled down to a single adjective or adjectival phrase. The tilt also could also be that because the anti-abortion cause is, for many, so strongly connected to religious convictions that such adherents are more likely to speak of their cause in strong, religious terms than is the other side. This pattern also suggests that the abortion rights adherents have been less likely to describe themselves or others with such conviction, possibly because such convictions often get misconstrued as being more motivated by the desire for abortions than as motivated by the welfare of women and women’s rights. Few, if any, abortion rights advocates want to be portrayed in that way, which might sometimes serve to mute their fervor. Indeed, this very view came up in one of the articles in this sample, where Sen. Hillary Clinton was quoted calling abortion “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.” That prompted this criticism from the New York Conservative Party chairman: “Don’t judge her by her speeches; judge her by her actions,” as if someone casting abortion rights votes cannot also view an abortion as a tragic circumstance (Zremski, 2004).
Abortion risks and emotional toll. This theme included descriptions of the availability or non-availability of abortion in a way that highlights the risks, dangers or emotional toll for women. It was present in four male articles and eight female articles. It occurred less in the form of adjectives or “sound bites” so much as in anecdotal form. One article was about a proposed Missouri law that would make it a crime for a non-parent adult to drive a teen across state lines for an abortion. The article described how if the bill passed, an Illinois abortion clinic used by many Missouri teens would have to lower its pain medication to girls who then had to drive themselves back to Missouri following the procedure (Franck, 2005). The anecdote served to emphasize the added pain the underaged girls would have to endure from the proposed abortion restrictions. Another article included a quote about the “risks associated with abortion,” along with language by the reporter about the “emotional risks of having abortions” (Nurse & Hartstein, 2003), which highlights the possible emotional and health toll from abortion. Along similar lines, an article about a church room dedicated to “lost children” included considerable description about women having abortions who suffer long-term emotional pain (Paulson, 2000). Others quoted an abortion rights protestor who mentioned “coat hangar abortions” (Dart, 2004), or described the presence of wire coat hangars at an abortion rights rally. Both served as a reminder of the dangers to women if abortion is made illegal. Another article about an art exhibit that included the mention of abortion in a drawing stated that abortion is “one of the deepest secrets many women keep” (McQuaid, 2004) again, emphasizing the emotional toll from abortion. An article about the debate over so-called “partial-birth” abortions included a paraphrase by the reporter that one pregnant woman was urged by doctors to “abort the pregnancy to protect her future fertility,” which emphasized the risk to some women from continuing with certain pregnancy complications (Livermore, 2003). Another article about “partial-birth” abortion described the alternative late-term abortion procedure as being painful, medically complicated and expensive (Smyth, 2001). Another article interviewed someone who described the death of a woman by self-induced abortion while pregnant with her sixth child because her husband would not allow the use of contraception, much less legal abortion services (Ezzard, 2000). The article about the illegality of abortions in Nepal noted that “botched abortions account for more than half of maternal deaths,” and that “women risk death to abort unwanted fetuses rather than be accused of infidelity.” The article contained additional similar language, including a description of the imprisonment of Nepalese women on abortion charges (Lloyd, 2000), bringing to light vast physical and medical risks for women seeking or undergoing abortions in that country.
All in all, however, such descriptions of the health, medical or emotional risks to women from abortion’s availability or unavailability were sparse in this sample. With abortions having been legal in the U.S. since 1972, entire generations have grown up in America never hearing or knowing of anyone who underwent an abortion that was not performed by a doctor. According to Planned Parenthood, quoting from a 2004 World Health Organization study, the death rate from abortion is 0.6 per 100,000 procedures in the U.S. The organization states that in 1965, before legal abortion, one-fifth of all maternal deaths in the U.S. were due to illegal, unsafe abortions (Global, illegal abortion: Where there is no "Roe", 2006). This suggests that as fewer Americans have been exposed to the health risks and ramifications of abortion, the less likely the theme is to make the news. At the same time, as the physical and medical risks to women have waned in the news with safe, legal abortion, some reporters—mostly females—appear to still write about the emotional and psychological fallout from abortion.
Babies/innocent life emphasized. This theme was noted where the terms “baby,” “child” or “innocence/innocent life” were used in connection with the issue of abortion. This theme appeared in 10 male articles, 12 female articles, and one mixed-gender article. By far, most of these references came in the form of quotations, such as this one from a woman reacting to the selection of Pope Benedict XVI: “If you don’t want to have a baby, you shouldn’t have to have one” (Blake & White, 2005). Or the quote from the court testimony of a man asked to kill the pregnant girlfriend of a drug dealer because he “did not want to have the baby” (Daly, 2005).” By far most articles used the terms in connection with an anti-abortion position, such as the Catholic woman quoted saying that voting for an abortion rights candidate would be “denying the innocent a right to life” (Townsend, 2004a), or the Senate candidate who said during a debate: “I love children. I love God and I love life” (Galloway, 2004). Anti-abortion protestors were quoted saying they “care for unborn children” (Mannies, 2001), and a man suing a Houston abortion clinic over his underaged daughter’s abortion was quoted saying, “My first grandchild was aborted” (Zuniga, 2002). A woman who favored the Plan B contraceptive recounted the words of a pharmacist who told her friend seeking the drug that he would not participate in the “murder of a baby” (Cuniberti, 2005).
In some articles, this language appeared when the reporter quoted from specific bills, laws, court decisions, or political ads, such as this phrase, “partially delivered baby,” from a legal decision about “partial-birth” abortion (Livermore, 2003). Similarly, a reporter quoted language in a bill barring scientific research that uses “fetal tissues, organs or body parts of aborted children” (Mannies, 2000b) and another quoted a John Ashcroft political ad stating that his opponent for governor of Missouri “show(ed) more mercy for a murderer than for innocent life” (Mannies, 2000a). “Unborn child” and phrases to the effect of “human life in its very beginning stages” also came up several times in the discussion of embryonic stem cell research (Bell Jr., 2001). All of the terms, however, were strong reminders of the anti-abortion position that “babies” or “children,” not “embryos” or “fetuses,” are lost in abortions or in embryonic stem cell research.
Abortion and religion. Here, articles were noted that included specific discussion of religion in connection with the issue of abortion. This theme appeared in 10 male articles and four female articles. Articles here focused on, among other things, the controversy over the Catholic bishops who said they would deny Communion to presidential candidate John Kerry and said it was a “grave sin” to vote for politicians who support abortion rights, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia, or same-sex marriage (Townsend, 2004b). Several stories also described anti-abortion anger over the choice of abortion rights speakers at Catholic-affiliated universities. Another story described the growing power of evangelical Christian broadcaster James Dobson, and quoted him calling abortion the “biggest holocaust in world history” and of causing the nation, along with gay marriage, to be “hurtling toward Gomorrah” (MacQuarrie, 2005). Religious references also appeared in several articles about the debate over embryonic stem cell research. Other articles included quotes from anti-abortion supporters that drew upon religion, such as this one quoting a George Bush contributor who noted, “I’m very impressed by his faith” (Hotakainen, 2003). A story about longtime abortion protestors with 11 children quoted one stating, “We care for unborn children … because of our love for Jesus” (Mannies, 2001). The reporter in one article wrote of a Missouri state senator who voted against a bill to prohibit human cloning: “… she considers herself a good Catholic with a solid anti-abortion record” (M. D. Leonard & Mannies, 2004). One of the few articles to include a religious reference from an abortion rights proponent paraphrased former presidential candidate Howard Dean insisting that not all Catholics are “anti-choice” (Shepard, 2005b). Still, it is no surprise that most religious references in articles about abortion occur in connection to the anti-abortion position, given that many adherents profess their religious faith as the reason for their stance (see Hoffmann & Johnson, 2005).
Abortion legality/women’s rights. In these articles, passages and phrases were included that described the issue of abortion with specific mention of women’s rights or with the word “legal” (no quotes) in front of the word “abortion,” which highlights its status. This theme appeared in 10 male articles, six female articles, and two mixed-gender articles. It was present in numerous phrases and quotes. For example, several articles included language referring to the established precedent of Roe vs. Wade in connection with women’s rights (Dine & Lambrecht, 2000; Shepard, 2005a). Another described the choice not to have an abortion as being equally about women’s rights, and the reporter called a woman “stalwart” in refusing her boyfriend’s demands to terminate her pregnancy (Daly, 2005). Another article quoted the attorney who successfully argued the Roe vs. Wade case before the Supreme Court saying the abortion debate is “about women trying to claim the ability to make decisions for themselves” (Racine, 2001). Another quote from an abortion rights supporter quoted from the Roe decision, calling it about the “right to privacy, including a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy” (Lhotka, 2000). Reporter Eileen McNamara wrote of “anti-abortion activists who refuse to accept that a woman’s right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy has been legal for 27 years” (McNamara, 2000). Another reporter quoted an abortion rights activist saying the Bush cabinet appointees “are antichoice and anti-women’s rights” (Kornblut, 2000). One abortion rights leader called the appointment of John Ashcroft as attorney general “an ominous early warning to women and pro-choice Americans that the freedoms that took a century to win are now in grave danger,” and she added later that President Bush’s many anti-abortion cabinet nominees would “take away or restrict women’s reproductive freedom and choice” (Reinert, 2000). Not surprisingly, most of these examples reflected positions held or emphasized by abortion rights adherents.
This study offered an examination of news coverage about the important issue of abortion in a six-year sample of American newspapers, with particular focus on the gender of the journalists doing the reporting. A quantitative analysis of the use of abortion “labels” in newspaper articles found that “abortion rights” and “anti-abortion” are the terms that have come to most often describe the two “sides” in the abortion debate, by both male and female journalists. This has probably been influenced by the Associated Press’ decision in 2000 to advise journalists following AP Style guidelines to use those terms. Even so, reporters seem to be making a conscious decision to avoid such labels altogether, since fully a third of the articles in this study used none of the nine abortion labels coded. No significant differences were found in the likelihood of male or female journalists to use any of the individual labels, possibly because of their small numbers in the sample. Yet, when the five labels that best describe or are used by anti-abortion forces were combined (anti-abortion, pro-life, abortion opponent/foe, right to life, and pro-abortion), female journalists were found significantly more likely than their male counterparts to use the terms. Although female journalists also more often included the four combined abortion rights-side labels, the difference in their use of the terms was not significant from male journalists.
This sample found that female journalists were being assigned to, or choosing to, cover the issue of abortion in slightly greater proportion to their numbers in U.S. newspaper newsrooms. More than 39% of the articles in this sample were written by women journalists, even though females comprise just 33 to 37% of newspaper journalists. Even so, that did not mean much for the improvement of female voices in the news, with female reporters just as likely as male reporters to include males as sources. Male sources dominated the news about abortion, appearing more than two and a half times as often as female sources. They also appeared as the first source in articles about abortion more than 70% of the time—and female journalists were just as likely as male journalists to put them there. This continues to suggest that female journalists are following the norms of the predominantly male newsroom culture when it comes to source selection.
Content differences according to journalist gender showed up more often in the qualitative analysis of themes and patterns in articles about abortion. Female journalists more often described abortion with language typically found in the description of other health or medical procedures. They more often described the risks, dangers, and emotional toll for women in relation to the availability or unavailability of abortion. They more often wrote about abortion in relation to contraception or family planning. And they more often delegitimized terms adopted by anti-abortion adherents with quotation marks or preceding words, yet they also more often described anti-abortion adherents with terms that emphasized the strength of their convictions. Male reporters, for their part, more often included war or military terms to describe the abortion debate, more often included references to religion in connection with abortion, and more often mentioned women’s rights or preceded abortion with the term “legal” to highlight its status. In all of these examples, male reporters seemed to, in a way, more often call attention to powerful institutions: the military, the (Christian) church, the law. Female reporters called attention to more women-focused concerns such as women’s health and safety, and family planning. Female reporters also far more often used quotes and descriptions to portray abortion opponents as foolish or extremists or, by contrast, to highlight the strength of their convictions.
Both groups of reporters similarly included the use of terms such as “baby,” “child,” or “innocent life” in connection with abortion, most of which came from quotes from human or physical sources rather than in the reporters’ own language.
Unlike the two CMPA studies, which concluded that female reporters most often reported abortion rights views and male reporters most often reported anti-abortion views or balanced views, this mixed-methodology study provides results that are less clear-cut. While female reporters were more likely than their male counterparts to include the combined anti-abortion terms in their articles, the textual analysis suggests that female journalists may have more consciously seen the importance of including discussion about family planning and female health outcomes and risks in connection with their reporting on abortion. This emphasis was less in line with the abortion rights position so much as it was corresponding to the interests, in general, of women—their emotional and physical health and their reproductive concerns. Their many instances of calling attention to anti-abortion adherents’ strongly held convictions (i.e., “staunchly” pro-life) could be interpreted as either a warning to abortion rights adherents or as an homage to anti-abortion supporters. Yet, their frequent portrayals of abortion foes with language that mocked them, represented them as extreme, or delegitimized terms such as “partial birth” abortion or “pro-life” seemed a clear message of dissent against abortion opponents.
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