In a Twitter post today, Matthew Hennessey, deputy op-ed editor for the Wall Street Journal, complained about a New York Times story on a British court ruling that a mentally disabled woman must have an abortion.
“Reporter calls abortion rights group for comment on big story but harvests pro-life quotes from social media. Another totally fair report from our great journalist advocate class,” Hennessey tweeted with obvious sarcasm.
In a follow-up tweet, he added, “It’s almost — almost — as if making the phone call, talking to real pro-lifers and respectfully recording their views is so disgusting and legitimizing as to repel the average journalist.”
Before I analyze the Times story in question, a quick note on the case itself: The Catholic News Agency reports that the forced abortion has been overturned on appeal:
Back to Hennessey’s complaint, which has been retweeted 125 times and liked 272 times as I type this post: I’ve read numerous news reports over the years where I would have said “Amen!” and agreed wholeheartedly. In fact, in an email chain with my GetReligion colleagues, I called dibs on critiquing this story before reading it.
It seemed like a quick-and-easy case to make the highly relevant journalistic point that we often do here: That is, ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.
But in this case, after clicking the link, I had to wonder if Hennessey read the same story I did. Yes, it appears that the Times quoted the pro-life side via a social media post. And yet, the paper called the pro-choice side for comment.
However, the pro-life side was quoted first, and both sides were quoted:
The British charity Life, which says its mission is to create a society that “has the utmost respect for all human life from fertilization,” said in a Facebook post that the decision was “truly horrendous.” Commentators on the site described it as “terrible” and “devastating.”
“That is wrong on every level; doesn’t mean baby will have learning difficulties,” another person wrote on the Facebook page of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.
A spokeswoman for the British group Abortion Rights, which she said campaigned “to keep options open for the many women who willingly choose to end their pregnancies,” described the case in a telephone call on Sunday as not unprecedented but “really sad and complex.”
The group’s chairwoman, Kerry Abel, said in an email statement: “As heartbreaking as this case is, it is opportunistic for antichoice organizations to use it to attack a woman’s right to choose. One in three women will have an abortion in the U.K. for many, many individual reasons, and we shouldn’t undermine free, safe, legal abortion based on one difficult case.”
Could it be that — in this particular case — the Times quoted one side’s social media because that side was talking about the case and called the other side because that side hadn’t posted anything publicly?
While Hennessey referred to this as a “big story,” the Times seems to be treating it as a quick-hit spot news item and piecing together details on the fly — as opposed to making a lot of calls — from various sources.
Undoubtedly, tweets such as Hennessey’s play well with a sympathetic audience. But credibility might be helped by saving such outrage for more egregious cases of actual bias in abortion-related news reports.