Is It Intentional or Unintentional Bias?

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A student in the journalism department at a local college interviewed me recently for an article she was writing.

A group of us were praying outside of the Planned Parenthood on a dreary Saturday morning when the young woman approached the “deathscorts” at Planned Parenthood. They apologized but said they are not allowed to give interviews without permission from Planned Parenthood.

So she walked up to our group and asked if she could interview us for a story she was writing “about reproductive rights and people who oppose reproductive rights.”

Bias? Or Something Else?

My initial thought was “Gee, I know what her opinion is on this issue!” When she asked me if I felt bad about whether I ever felt “guilty for coercing women in their time of need,” I just laughed.

But after talking it over with some others, I wonder whether she was really biased, or it was just the language she was using–because of the language she is inundated with on a regular basis–that was creating an unperceived (by her) bias.

Maybe she didn’t even realize her language was biased. Maybe she’s been so surrounded by people that refer to abortion as a “reproductive right” that it didn’t occur to her to call it “abortion” or to think of us as being anything but a nuisance to women exercising a right. Certainly that’s all she ever hears in most news stories.

Pro-Life Makes Newspaper’s Forbidden List

My dad used to write a column for a newspaper owned by a major Chicago paper. The editors of the paper showed him a New York Times “Style Book,” which had a list of words that could never be used, no matter what, in stories–words like “niggardly.” This word is defined as “grudging: petty or reluctant,” and Wikipedia tells us etymologically “niggardly” is unrelated to the racial slur. Yet this word could not be used because it is potentially offensive.

What else made their list, you ask? Pro-Life.

I kid you not.

Writers at that paper–and many others–were not allowed to refer to pro-life people as being “pro-life.” Instead, they were obligated to substitute in the less pleasing word “anti-abortion.” (Naturally the term preferred by the abortion rights crowd, “pro-choice,” was OK.)

Policies like that caused political candidate Andy Anderson to change his middle name to “Pro-Life.” When the papers wouldn’t publish his middle name to avoid having to use the “bad word,” he changed his first name to “Pro-Life,” forcing them to print the word at least once in every story about him being an “anti-abortionist.”

Occam’s Razor for Journalists

Perhaps I need to keep all of this in mind the next time I’m interviewed, particularly by a young student. As the late Richard John Neuhaus commented in a 2006 blog post:

Wherever you go, you run into people who say they were disillusioned with the press when they saw how a story in which they were involved was reported. What they knew for sure had happened was grossly misrepresented. Frequently they say the reporter was biased or even malicious, and that is undoubtedly sometimes the case. But over the years of dealing with reporters–and, again, there are notable exceptions–I have been led to embrace something like an Occam’s razor with respect to journalistic distortions: Do not multiply explanations when ignorance will suffice.

Maybe she just didn’t know better.

I do wish, though, that instead of asking her questions about what we do while sidewalk counseling and then immediately leaving, she had stayed to watch us. Perhaps seeing what we do could have helped break down her preconceived ideas or unconscious biases about what pro-life Prayer Warriors and Sidewalk Counselors do. But as soon as our interview was over, she was gone in the blink of an eye.

I don’t expect to ever see her article, but I hold out hope that it will be a balanced report, like she assured me it would be.

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