[lg policy] Reviewing NPR's language for coeering abortion

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Fri May 31 11:45:50 EDT 2019

Reviewing NPR’s Language For Covering Abortion
Elizabeth Jensen

Protesters demonstrate in front of the US Supreme Court during the March
For Life in Washington, DC, January 27, 2017.
Jim Watson / AFP/Getty Images

The debate over abortion rights is emotionally charged. The language NPR
uses to discuss the issue should not add to the drama.

This principle applies, of course, to any number of topics in the news that
NPR covers. But the legal battle over the right to an abortion is
particularly fraught, and the language used to discuss it has become a key
tactical weapon
by both sides as they seek to tap into those emotions.

For months we have heard concerns from NPR listeners and readers on both
sides of the issue, and they continue to come in as the legislative and
legal challenges to abortion are in the news. The complaints are flip sides
of a coin. We get complaints that NPR is using the language of “the other
side” (whatever the other side is, depending on the affiliation of the
letter writer) and thus giving the other side an advantage. An example: a
recent letter from a New Hampshire listener noted that NPR had referred to
pregnant women as mothers. He called that “a politically loaded term, since
a pregnant woman is not a mother until she gives birth.”

Conversely, we get complaints that NPR is *not *using the emotionally
charged language that proponents of one side or the other prefer. The main
example: We regularly hear from those who say they are “pro-life” and
wonder why NPR won’t give them the respect of calling them by their
preferred label (NPR’s policy is not to use “pro-life” or “pro-choice;”
more on that below). Some on this side argue that it’s not just a matter of
respect; that by taking the emotion out of the debate it’s also taking the
side of those who favor legalized abortion.

What follows is an explanation of what NPR’s policy
and the thinking behind it, along with a few thoughts from listeners and
readers on how they hear the language. (As a reminder, the Public Editor’s
office serves as a liaison between listeners and readers and the newsroom.
We don’t set NPR policy; that’s up to the newsroom, including standards and
practices editor Mark Memmott.)

There are a number of principles that newsrooms, NPR’s included, consider
when crafting guidelines for the language used to discuss issues.

One (and in my mind this is the most important) is to be factual, which
means describing the situation as accurately as possible given the facts
available at the time. Clarity is a related goal; among other things, this
means not muddying the waters with vague language and euphemisms. There’s
also a desire to avoid language that has been politicized, and a need to
respect those whose views the newsroom is reporting.

And Memmott, in particular, emphasizes that the newsroom’s journalists
should seek to avoid labeling people and instead use what he calls “action
language” that describes them more fairly and accurately (so a person is
“in the country illegally,” not an “illegal alien”). I’ve written before
about these issues, including here
 and here

Sometimes these goals end up being in conflict. Abortion is one case where
it may not be possible to reconcile all of them to everyone’s satisfaction.

Let’s start with NPR’s policy, which, while regularly looked at, hasn’t
changed since 2010, when NPR adopted new language
same as used by the vast majority of other major news organizations).

The policy states:

On the air, we should use “abortion rights supporter(s)/advocate(s)” and
“abortion rights opponent(s)” or derivations thereof (for example:
“advocates of abortion rights”). It is acceptable to use the phrase
“anti-abortion”, but do not use the term “pro-abortion rights”.

How do the principles apply here? For one, the vast majority of stories are
about “abortion rights,” i.e., the right to choose an abortion (legalized,
with some restrictions, in the 1973 Supreme Court decision *Roe v. Wade*).
One supports this right or one opposes it. That is both factual and clear,
and emphasizes an action. The terms used by NPR are also largely
apolitical, since neither side regularly uses those phrases, and thus NPR
cannot be accused of adopting one side’s terminology over the other.

A second part of the policy states:

Do not use “pro-life” and “pro-choice” in copy except when used in the name
of a group.

This applies, of course, only to NPR’s reporters and hosts who are covering
the issue. When someone who is being interviewed uses one of those phrases,
it is not cut out.

So to be clear, the phrases “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are heard
abundantly on NPR.

Why are NPR journalists themselves told not to use them? In the case of
“pro-choice,” the language is accurate. Those on that side want women to
have the option to choose whether to have an abortion. People who oppose
abortion rights don’t see it as a choice between two morally equivalent
positions, but, opinions aside, that language does go back to the central
focus of the legal and political controversy: it is a choice that the
Supreme Court so far has ruled lies with the pregnant woman.

“Pro-life” is a bit murkier. The very strong implication is that those on
the other side do not value life at all. Some people, of course, support
the legal right to choose an abortion while at the same time would not
choose that option for themselves, because they, too, value life. Others
support abortion rights, but oppose the death penalty.

Memmott told me: “One of the issues with pro-choice versus pro-life has
always been, if you use either, are you saying the others aren’t anti-those
things? Couldn’t we instead use some action words to describe their
positions? So ‘pro-abortion rights,’ ‘anti-abortion rights’ are slightly
more action. They’re still labels, but they’re more of a sense of the
action, the thinking, without necessarily saying one side is anti

In addition, “pro-choice” and “pro-life” are the shorthand phrases adopted
by each side, and thus they have become politicized language.

But what about the principle of respect, as many have argued to the Public
Editor’s office?

One listener wrote that while NPR often tries to respect its subjects by
using descriptions that they themselves use, “when a Pro-Life individual
identifies herself as Pro-Life, NPR refuses to extend this courtesy and
insists on calling her Anti-Abortion in a belittling and a derogatory way.”

I agree that respect is an important part of the deliberation. But NPR
should respect the strong feelings of all concerned, and “pro-life,” for
the reasons outlined, casts aspersions. Avoiding pro-life AND pro-choice is
an attempt to make sure the debate remains civil. And once again, it should
be noted, that guests on NPR’s air often have the occasion to explain their
thoughts in their own words; NPR does not tell guests what language they
can and cannot use in cases like this, nor should it.

Another listener wrote:

I am bothered by your choice of language because it seems to try to
marginalize an opinion that NPR seems to oppose and it does so in a way
that makes my views come across as being antagonistic toward women. I
strongly believe that an unborn child is a person [whose] right to live is
more important than a woman’s right to an abortion, but my opinion is not
derived from an antagonism toward woman, but simply from a desire to
protect a vulnerable human.

Along those same lines, we heard from one listener:

Your reporters describe the pro-life movement as “anti-abortion rights”
activists, but they describe the pro-choice movement as such, or as being
for abortion rights. So they describe one side in terms of what they are
against, and the other side in terms of what they are for. This shows bias.

There’s a reason for this difference in the language (“for” v. “anti”): The
debate is about taking away a right that is currently constitutionally
protected. But these listeners make what seems to me as a reasonable point
about the use of the word “anti.” What if they were described as “opposing”
abortion rights? Or as wanting to change the right? Both are accurate and
less charged than “anti.”

Memmott recently reissued NPR’s guidance on the topic and included another
point dealing with current legislation. We’ve received strong criticism of
it from those who are opposed to abortion rights (much of it generated by
people who are reacting to numerous columns about the guidance that have
been published on conservative web sites).

In particular, the guidelines say that:

Proponents refer to it as a “fetal heartbeat” law. That is their term. It
needs to be attributed to them if used and put in quotation marks if
printed. We *should not* simply say the laws are about when a “fetal
heartbeat” is detected. As we’ve reported
heartbeat activity can be detected “about six weeks into a pregnancy.”
That’s at least a few weeks before an embryo is a fetus.

Critics also objected to NPR’s longstanding guidance, dating from the
presidency of George W. Bush, that:

The term “unborn” implies that there is a baby inside a pregnant woman, not
a fetus. Babies are not babies until they are born. They’re fetuses.

This is essentially the same as the guidance offered by the *AP Stylebook*,
whose combined entry for “embryo, fetus, unborn baby, unborn child” reads:

While the terms are essentially interchangeable in many common uses, each
has become politicized by the abortion debate even in uses not involving
abortion. Anti-abortion advocates say fetus devalues a human life;
abortion-rights supporters argue unborn child or baby equate termination of
a pregnancy with murder by emphasizing the fetus’s humanity.

Write clearly and sensitively, using any of the terms when appropriate:

Fetus, which refers to the stage in human development from the eighth week
of pregnancy to birth, is preferred in many cases, including almost all
scientific and medical uses: The virus can be disastrous to a fetus. The
lawsuit alleges harm to a fetus that prosecutors claim was viable. The
research was conducted on fetal tissue.

In scientific uses referring to the first seven weeks of human development
after conception, use embryo.

The context or tone of a story can allow for unborn baby or child in cases
where fetus could seem clinical or cold: Weiss said her love for her unborn
baby was the strongest feeling she had ever felt. The expectant mother lost
her baby in the seventh month of pregnancy.

Of course, as the many critics have pointed out
<https://thebulwark.com/how-npr-manipulates-the-language-of-abortion/>, and
AP acknowledges, the use of “fetus” is in direct contrast to the everyday
language of society, where references to a “baby” abound, even at the
earliest stages of a pregnancy.

Memmott told me: “We fully understand that someone who is pregnant is
thinking of that as a baby. We’re not saying they aren’t.”

Is taking “baby” and “mother” and “life” out of the conversation profoundly
biased in favor of those in favor of abortion rights? Science would say no.
NPR has explored that, including in Tuesday’s interview on *Here & Now*
<https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2019/05/28/science-when-life-begins> where
the guest’s conclusion was: Scientists have widely differing opinions on
when life begins and often don’t wrestle with the issue at all.

Where does this leave us?

At an impasse, I’m afraid. Journalism standards and ethics, aside from
prohibitions on, say, plagiarism, are not always clear-cut. They represent
a best effort to put in place policies that attempt to produce fairness and
accuracy. Allowing each side to choose the language it wants does not
produce, much less guarantee, that goal.

Despite what some people on both sides of the abortion seem to believe,
NPR’s intent is not to take a side in its language choices. (See *Morning
Edition*‘s Steve Inskeep’s thoughts here
<https://twitter.com/NPRinskeep/status/1132048225295327232>.) And as
Memmott told me, “We’re trying hard. And I know people disagree.” He added,
“We’re trying hard not to adopt the language of any side.”

Until someone comes up with even more neutral language for this discussion
(and many have tried) NPR should stick to its policy.
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 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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