Style guide aims to make it easier to cover stories like Plan B

When news broke that the Obama administration had abandoned its effort to maintain age restrictions on a form of emergency contraception called Plan B, Monte Morin described the medication using dispassionate and clear language:

Plan B One-Step, like the related two-pill Plan B, uses the synthetic hormone levonorgestrel to prevent pregnancy by blocking ovulation and impeding the mobility of sperm. Neither Plan B nor Plan B One-Step causes an abortion, nor does either harm a fetus.

Emotions run high around any news involving contraception or abortion, and news organizations do themselves and their audiences a real service when they deliver news in a fashion that allows readers to focus on the content of their stories rather than on how they’re presented.

That’s one reason why the Women’s Media Center’s newish “Media Guide to Covering Reproductive Issues” by Sarah Erdreich is an interesting read for anyone covering stories like Plan B. In its introduction, the guide says its professed goal is to “give reporters and media outlets factual, historic, legal, medical, polling and policy sources.”

The WMC is a feminist organization founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem and Robin Morgan. I asked Rachel Larris, WMC’s communications manager and the editor of the guide, why mainstream newsrooms — many of which got torched over the perception they weren’t covering Kermit Gosnell’s trial adequately — should use a guide that could conceivably lead to more headaches because of who produced it.

Because imprecise language, she said, could get in the way of good reporting.

“After tracking coverage of reproductive issues, we noticed that there were sometimes factual inaccuracies in reporters’ stories, but also sometimes a lack of clarity in the handling of a topic,” she wrote in an email.

“For example, when a reporter is faced with a source using an ambiguous term like ‘abortion pill’ it’s important for them to ask what the source thinks that term refers to. But equally important, the reporter should understand when the source is using it inaccurately, why the source is using that term and what the correct medical terminology actually is.”

The guide, which WMC released in January but recently published as a physical book, has an easy-to-understand entry on the term “emergency contraception” as well as deep dives on issues like how to refer to advocates on different sides of the abortion debate. Some labels, the guide says, “represent little more than competing public relations campaigns,” while others “denote very real distinctions in movement issues, priorities, and goals (‘pro-life’ vs ‘consistent life ethic’).”

WMC President Julie Burton told Poynter via email: “When it comes to reproductive issues, we know that many reporters are often pressed for time and research and do not work on these issues as an established beat or expertise, therefore we produced this guide to help the press get accurate, reliable facts and resources to tell the stories that are crucial to women’s lives.”

For what it’s worth, there is a precedent for even anti-abortion groups to use the work of institutions that with which they may have little intellectual sympathy: Studies by the Guttmacher Institute — named for a former president of Planned Parenthood — are regularly chewed over and cited by groups such as the American Life League and the National Right to Life Committee.

But what about newsrooms?

“I’ve been thanked by some editors and reporters for sending them the Media Guide and hope that many newsrooms find it helpful in producing better and more accurate reportage,” Larris said.

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