The sources of media bias go beyond ideology

Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from two speeches Interim editor Paul Tuns delivered last Fall to the Eastern Ontario Campaign Life Coalition regional conference on Oct. 29 and a CLC Toronto forum on Nov. 12.


When we think about “what’s wrong with the media,” the problem goes much further than media bias – at least not as we commonly conceive the roots of media bias. Instead, we should dig deeper and examine the myriad reasons why the broadcast and print media often seem to be pro-abortion. Being ideologically in favour of abortion – or being liberal on same-sex “marriage,” embryonic stem cells or any number of other issues – is only part of the problem that the pro-life movement (and the unborn child) face in dealing with journalists. There are systemic problems in the media and with journalists that work against the pro-life movement that go beyond the fact that some journalists think that women have the “right to choose.”

Journalists are more pro-abortion

Let there be no doubt about it: politically and ideologically, many journalists are strongly committed to legal and permissive abortion. They see nothing wrong with having women kill their unborn children in the womb. American surveys of journalists show that far more than the average citizen, they are politically liberal, vote Democrat, are less likely to believe in God, and go to church less often.

According to a ground-breaking survey of the media elite conducted by Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman in 1981, 81 per cent of journalists voted Democrat, 54 per cent of journalists call themselves liberal (about twice the rate of the public-at-large), and few were practicing Christians (about one-fifth the rate of the general public). According to the Media Research Centre, after the 1992 presidential election, the percentage of elite journalists who called themselves liberal was 61 per cent compared to just 9 per cent that called themselves conservative – at a time when about 30 per cent of the country labelled their politics liberal and another 30 per cent identified as conservative. In 2004, New York Times columnist John Tierney reported that Beltway journalists – those who cover politics in Washington – favoured the Democrat candidate, John Kerry, by a factor of 12 to 1 over George Bush.

In 1990, the Los Angeles Times, ran an extensive series entitled, “Abortion bias seeps into news.” The funny thing is, both before and after this three-part expose, pro-lifers would charge the Times with being consistently and blatantly pro-abortion in its coverage of abortion. Still, this is what the paper found in the reporting of the major papers in the U.S.:

the news media consistently uses language and images that frame the debate in ways that favour the pro-abortion side;

those who support abortion are quoted more often and treated more favourably that those who oppose it;

pro-life events are ignored or minimalized;

pro-abortion events and legislative efforts are given greater coverage;

pro-life events get rebuttal comments from pro-abortion sources, but pro-abortion events are not likely to have a pro-life response;

pro-abortion commentary outnumbers pro-life commentary 2:1;

the media overwhelmingly use terms favoured by abortion advocates (pro-choice) and eschew terms favoured by abortion opponents (pro-life);

pro-life advocates are likely to have adjectives describing their position as political or religious (conservative or Christian) whereas abortion advocates are not likely to be called liberal;

adjectives such as militant, strident, or extreme are much more likely to be affixed to the pro-life position than pro-abortion one;

abortion is likely to be framed as a health or rights issue while opposition to abortion is likely to be framed as a religious or political issue;

the complete failure to report that the most quoted source on abortion, the Alan Guttmacher Institute, is affiliated with Planned Parenthood;

when Catholic bishops speak out about abortion the media is much more likely to question their political involvement than when they address poverty or nuclear weapons.

Almost all these findings were replicated in a 1998 study by the Media Research Center, a media bias watchdog group. If anything, things got worst in the 1990s.

Regarding the use of terminology, we can get hung up on framing issues and labels, but there is clearly something wrong when, as the Times discovered, 74 per cent of the time abortion advocates are referred to as pro-choice while abortion opponents are referred to pro-lifers only 6 per cent of the time. The Media Research Center examined three major papers in 1995 and 1996 and found of 387 stories that mentioned pro-life groups, but not one referred to them as pro-life; instead the reporters (or editors) called them anti-abortion or abortion opponents. On the other hand, of 682 stories mentioning pro-abortion groups not one referred to them as “pro-abortion,” “abortion supporters,” or “abortion advocates.” They were pro-choice or abortion rights supporters. The Rochester Chronicle-Democrat has even referred to pro-lifers as “anti-choice,” which is blatant pro-abortion rhetoric.

Interim style is to describe both sides as accurately as possible. Those who oppose abortion and thus the killing of unborn children are pro-life, who those who support legal access to abortion are pro-abortion. They are not pro-choice which is, journalistically speaking, vague about what choice is being described.

For the so-called mainstream media, the old Globe and Mail Stylebook made sense. The Stylebook dictated that the paper use the terms pro-abortion and anti-abortion because, as the editors at the time explained, the issue is abortion (not choice, not life); there is a consistency in that policy that makes sense, although it probably makes neither side happy. The point, however, is that media outlets need fair policies: either do as the Globe did (they have since evidently abandoned this policy as they now seem to use the terms pro-choice and anti-abortion) and frame the discussion around the precise issue or use the terms that each side uses to describe themselves (namely pro-life and pro-choice).

So yes, many journalists have a pro-abortion bias but why this is so is the more interesting question. It is not all about ideology.

Journalists aren’t like most people

Research shows that more than whether someone is male or female or which partisan label he or she ascribes to, there are three strongly predictive factors in determining how pro-life or pro-abortion a person is: education level, income level, and religiousity.

Elite journalists – not those that cover local news for smaller dailies, but those who cover politics or work at major papers and networks  – are generally liberal on a host of issues which probably reflects that they are university educated, high income, not very religious, and associate with others who hold these same views. That is, most journalists have friends, spouses, and associates in politics, the arts, academia, advertising, and marketing. People who are part of what Richard Florida calls the Creative Class are overwhelming politically, morally and culturally liberal.

Specifically about abortion, in the U.S., journalists tend be more pro-abortion. According to polling and survey research in the early 1990s, when 33 per cent of the general public supported abortion for any reason, 51 per cent of journalists supported such a position; while 14 per cent of the public wanted all abortion banned, just 4 per cent of journalists held such a view. That is, journalists were 50 per cent more likely to support unrestricted abortion and the general public was three times more likely to oppose all abortions. These are statistically significant gaps in views about abortion. Unfortunately, there are no similar studies of Canadian journalists but it is safe to assume that similar patterns would emerge.

So, yes, some of the bias is political. But there are other problems with journalists that work against the pro-life movement.

Journalists lack intellectual curiousity

Many journalists are dumb and lazy. This is not said as a criticism, merely an observation.

Many journalists are incurious. They fancy themselves intellectuals, but they seldom want to delve too deeply into a topic. Many will say they are writing where their audience is, but newspaper readers are by definition not the average person. They can handle some intellectual heavy-lifting; perhaps it is the journalists who can’t.

Journalists are lazy. They follow the herd. Once a topic has been framed, that is the way the topic will continue to be covered. Once a quote makes the public realm, many journalists won’t even bother with their own interviews. There is very little leg-work being done by reporters anymore. Many cover events from their computer or television screens and they get quotes by email, wire services, or twitter. Also, once a source has been discovered to be a good one, he or she becomes the go-to person, not just for this or that reporter, but all reporters. (An example: When the Conservatives were in opposition, Jason Kenney was the politician reporters went to for a quote on almost any issue. Kenney was media savvy: he spoke in sound-bites, he talked slowly, he stayed on message, and he returned calls promptly. So every journalist used Jason Kenney for quotes and several dozen other equally conservative or pro-life MPs were virtually ignored.)

The herd of independent minds followed each other from story idea, to story sources, to story content. Toronto has four daily papers, but on any given day we would be lucky to get two different takes on something that was happening in the news.

The lack of intellectual curiousity and overall laziness of those in the  journalism profession is a greater problem than any ideological bias because the inertia of the media blob permits the continuation of the predominant way the media covers life issues. Until Sun News came along, every broadcaster carried the same few stories every night and talked to the same sources. Producers knew the handful of people who were well-spoken and could easily appear on TV. They did not do much to look beyond their narrow roster of guests. (With Sun News, dozens of well-spoken and intelligent experts are being interviewed regularly that seldom, if ever, appeared on the CBC and CTV political talk shows.)

On top of being dumb and lazy, journalists are vain. They don’t want to look stupid in front of their colleagues. Therefore, they are unlikely to go out on a limb and challenge the received wisdom of the media masses. Taking abortion seriously or questioning homosexuality could expose a journalist to the ridicule of colleagues who consider these topics unworthy of serious investigation.

There are other problems, too, namely how the media covers issues.

Abortion as a political issue

One of the problems for pro-lifers is that the media focuses on abortion as a political issue. For political journalists, abortion is a divisive issue only in the Conservative Party (federally) and the various small-c conservative parties in the provinces; the issue only arises in the leadership races for the Right or when a local candidate says something “off message.” Abortion is not covered but rather the political ramifications of talking about abortion. It is used as a “gotcha” weapon against certain politicians.

In some cases that might have to do with pro-abortion bias, but it also reflects another bias: covering politics as a horserace of one person or party moving ahead or falling behind others. To be fair, probably no issue gets very good coverage. Politics, not policy, is the focus of reporters in Ottawa and many of the provincial capitals. My theory is that many journalists who cover politics are political strategist wannabes – indeed several high profile journalists are married to Liberal strategists.

Again, journalists being dumb and lazy comes into play. Policy is more complicated than politics. It requires more research and more work. Done well, it follows from curious minds asking penetrating questions to delve into the topic. But following the media herd is easy. Being pro-life is a political liability and being pro-abortion is not, goes the standard narrative. Ergo, any mention of abortion hurts politicians on the right, while abortion is a non-issue for the Left.

Of course, if journalists were smarter, they would understand that this standard narrative about politics is, at best incomplete and at worst simply wrong. First, in Canada there is little data to help understand the relationship between abortion views and voting. An educated guess is that very few people, including very few pro-lifers vote on any single issue. In the U.S., research from the 1990s shows that depending on the state between three to six per cent of voters decide whom to vote for solely on the issue of abortion and the pro-life politician garners between 60 to 90 per cent of those votes. Clearly, being pro-life is a political advantage is the U.S., although political coverage there tends to ascribe political victories for the Right “despite” taking pro-life positions, although in close races being pro-life is decisively a positive factor.

Relatedly, many journalists do not know how to cover polls. Let us say that 60 per cent of people are pro-abortion (to some degree) and 40 per cent are pro-life (to some degree), there is still considerable political advantage to taking the pro-life position in a multi-party system. Indeed, even minority views on most pro-life issues tend to poll better than majority-winning governments. That is, less popular abortion positions are more popular than the average government that gets elected. Journalists tend to dismiss pro-life views, but as Toronto Sun columnist Lorrie Goldstein has noted, a minority of 20  or 30 per cent is still a significant proportion of the Canadian population (6-9 million) and therefore deserve a voice and be treated seriously within the media.

Many of us see the abortion issue as black and white – and for good reason – but the reality as illustrated by polls is that the public takes a more nuanced position. They are uncomfortable with abortion but do not want it banned. By covering abortion as a binary issue – a for and against conflict – the media does the public a disservice by ignoring the subtleties of the abortion issue. Polls in both Canada and the United States show that few people are actually on what Stephen Harper calls the two extremes; about one in five hold a hard pro-life or pro-abortion position with most others falling between the two positions. Bill Clinton probably represented the position best with his rhetorical phrase of wanting abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” But the media ignored the questions of safety and rarity and focus on whether abortion should be legal or illegal. Framing the issue thusly pushes many people who are reticent about abortion into the pro-abortion camp.

Furthermore, pro-life tends to get treated as a religious issue while abortion gets treated as a women’s issue. I’m not sure what to do about this because I’m uncomfortable telling pro-lifers to hide their rosary beads and eschew moral language in the abortion debate. But we must realize that this plays into the hands of the media.

Another reason so many journalists are pro-abortion is what is known in psychology as existence bias. The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology defines existence bias as the treatment of “the mere existence of something as evidence of its goodness.” Or to use the physics term inertia, the tendency of an object to resist any change in its motion.

How does this affect abortion coverage? Pro-abortion is the default position, so journalists unquestioningly accept it. This goes back to reporters being incurious and lazy. Relatedly, many journalists assume that the “choice” position is the neutral position. They are mistaken, nothing more, but they must be challenged on this assumption.

Lastly, there is the ascendency of a highly political active class of journalists to important positions in the media industry. The American Newspaper Guild, for example, officially endorses “a woman’s right to choose.” Some university campus newspapers, including the University of Toronto’s The Varsity newspaper, require editors to be “pro-choice.” This serves as a nudge to up-and-coming journalists to accept the pro-abortion position in order to fit in.

How to combat media bias

What can pro-lifers do? Lots.

Support the pro-life media.  Subscribe to The Interim and get gift subscriptions for family and friends. Read LifeSiteNews online for free and donate if you can.

Read and watch the less biased media. Get Sun News. Their hosts, Michael Coren, Brian Lilley, and Ezra Levant, talk about topics no one on CTV, Global or the CBC will touch and routinely bring pro-life and pro-family voices on the air. This will have an important long-term influence on the rest of the media as they normalize talking about previously verbotten topics. But it will take time.

In the meantime, read multiple sources of news and informed opinion, especially online where it is inexpensive to do so. Read blogs. There are a lot of good pro-life blogs out there (Jill Stanek, Rose Blue, ProWomanProLife). Do not get bogged down with pro-abortion writing; find pro-life reporting and commentary.

Also online, use social media. Interact with others who are like-minded, have respectful conversations with those with whom you disagree, and engage journalists and other opinion-leaders and opinion-makers. Organizations do not exist if they do not have a blog and are not on Twitter, so pro-life groups need to be there and connect with local journalists and policy-makers.

Challenge media, but do so in a polite manner. Do not insult editors when writing a letter to the editor that you hope will get published. Don’t complain about media bias. Present you point of view. Period.  Editors are not predisposed to publishing letters that begin by noting their ignorance, incompetence or bias. Do not point out the mistakes of editors, reporters or papers; just present an alternative point of view.

Most importantly, double check your facts, spelling and grammar. Do not give them a reason to skip your letter or think that you – and  by extension, the movement – are illiterate or stupid.

Keep letters short. Many good letters never see the page because they exceed the paper’s word count. Brevity is a virtue few writers have, and by demonstrating it, you are putting your letter ahead of others. When responding to news, you must do so in the publication in which the news appears. Papers are notorious for pretending others do not exist. Also, respond in a timely manner – usually within a day or so.

If you are particularly good at writing letters, volunteer to do so for others. Pro-life groups need to resurrect letter-writing clinics. These could be places to develop ideas, support each other’s writing efforts, share what works and doesn’t work, and match letter-writers with others who would like to speak out but do not feel they have the ability or knowledge to write to the media. Most papers have a limit on how often people can be published, so writing a letter for someone else can increase the volume of pro-life letters getting in the paper.

A last word about letters to the editor: In smaller papers, it is the most read section of the paper. We over-estimate the value of editorials and columns (they are read by a tiny portion of the general population), so try to respond more to news reports than opinion pieces. Anyway, editorials and columnists are supposed to have a point of view.

As a movement, pro-life groups need to be more innovative in dealing with media. The movement needs to develop more newsworthy stories. It needs to do a better job framing life issues so they match the media narrative so journalists will want to cover pro-life activities. Pro-life groups need to get online to meet journalists and doing a better job showing journalists pro-lifers are normal people. It is shocking how many journalists cannot get past the stereotype of what a pro-lifer is.

Finally, pro-life, socially conservative, and religious people need to stop abandoning journalism; indeed, they need to stop abandoning so many professions that have become hostile to the pro-life and pro-family cause. It did not help that many pro-lifers gave up on these institutions and they must infiltrate them, not to take them back, but rather to be an element within journalism, law, the academy and other professions. In some places this has happened, in others it has not. Young pro-lifers need to go to journalism school and become reporters even if the media seems like a hostile place. And be realistic. Not everyone will get to cover Parliament. Furthermore, those going into journalism need to aim to be good, fair reporters, not just columnists and editorial writers. The glory is in the by-lined column, but the impact is in quality news reporting.

Human beings and the societies they create are complex, so we should eschew the simple explanation. There is hardly ever a single reason for something happening. Media bias is not solely, or even primarily, the result of stridently pro-abortion attitudes making their way into news coverage. There are many reasons. We may never convince journalists that pro-life is the right view, but if we understand the multitude of reasons for their bias, we might find ways to help them cover abortion better. The pro-life movement cannot merely complain about the pro-abortion bias, it must combat that bias and that begins with understanding the problems with the media that might lead to that bias.