"Her message was clear," Okie recalled recently. "I felt that they were . . . (saying) 'You're hurting the cause' . . . that I was . . . being herded back into line."
Okie says she was "shocked" by the "disquieting" assumption implicit in the complaint--that reporters, especially women reporters, are expected to write only stories that support abortion rights.
But it's not surprising that some abortion-rights activists would see journalists as their natural allies. Most major newspapers support abortion rights on their editorial pages, and two major media studies have shown that 80% to 90% of U.S. journalists personally favor abortion rights. Moreover, some reporters participated in a big abortion rights march in Washington last year, and the American Newspaper Guild, the union that represents news and editorial employes at many major papers, has officially endorsed "freedom of choice in abortion decisions."
On an issue as emotional as abortion, some combatants on each side expect reporters to allow their personal beliefs to take precedence over their professional obligation to be fair and impartial.
Although reporters (and editors) insist they don't let that happen, abortion opponents are equally insistent that media bias manifests itself, in print and on the air, almost daily.
A comprehensive Times study of major newspaper, television and newsmagazine coverage over the last 18 months, including more than 100 interviews with journalists and with activists on both sides of the abortion debate, confirms that this bias often exists.
Responsible journalists do try to be fair, and many charges of bias in abortion coverage are not valid. But careful examination of stories published and broadcast reveals scores of examples, large and small, that can only be characterized as unfair to the opponents of abortion, either in content, tone, choice of language or prominence of play:
* The news media consistently use language and images that frame the entire abortion debate in terms that implicitly favor abortion-rights advocates.
* Abortion-rights advocates are often quoted more frequently and characterized more favorably than are abortion opponents.
* Events and issues favorable to abortion opponents are sometimes ignored or given minimal attention by the media.
* Many news organizations have given more prominent play to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion-rights advocates than to stories on rallies and electoral and legislative victories by abortion rights opponents.
* Columns of commentary favoring abortion rights outnumber those opposing abortion by a margin of more than 2 to 1 on the op-ed pages of most of the nation's major daily newspapers.
* Newspaper editorial writers and columnists alike, long sensitive to violations of First Amendment rights and other civil liberties in cases involving minority and anti-war protests, have largely ignored these questions when Operation Rescue and other abortion opponents have raised them.
Television is probably more vulnerable to charges of bias on abortion than are newspapers and magazines. The time constraints and ratings chase intrinsic to most television news programs often lead to the kind of superficiality and sensationalism that result in bias. In addition, says Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, the "insular culture that produces network newscasts" create an "implicit bias (that) is more pervasive . . . than in the print media."
But throughout the media, print and broadcast alike, coverage of abortion tends to be presented--perhaps subconsciously--from the abortion-rights perspective. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Webster case a year ago Tuesday that states could have more latitude in regulating abortion, for example, ABC News termed the decision "a major setback for abortion rights."
Couldn't it also have been called "a major victory for abortion opponents"?
But most reporters don't identify with abortion opponents.