May 5, 2022

The looming Supreme Court decision that will likely overturn the constitutional right to an abortion is an opportunity for newsrooms to reframe both abortion coverage and the worn-out debate around the rules of objectivity and subjectivity.

American newsrooms face two problems when it comes to abortion. The coverage itself often fails to capture the complexity and ambiguity that most Americans express on abortion. On top of that, the internal rules about avoiding political speech tend to stifle this conversation within newsrooms, leaving journalists poorly prepared for capturing the nuances of the issue.

This is actually a double dose of “High Conflict,” journalist Amanda Ripley, author of the book by the same name, told me. High conflict is bad for democracy and hard for journalists to cover because arguments are reduced to good-versus-evil frameworks.

“Abortion is the O.G. of high conflict,” Ripley said.

If that’s not hard enough, high conflict seeps into our newsroom culture. As demonstrators took to the streets, many newsrooms, including NPR (where I am the public editor) and The Associated Press, predictably issued all-staff memos first thing Tuesday morning advising journalists to avoid sharing their personal opinions on this political issue.

In doing so, newsroom leaders reverted to a traditional framing of neutrality that assumes the public will lose confidence in their news providers should some of their journalists (not opinion staff) publicly discuss their personal beliefs or experiences on abortion.

In several newsrooms, these memos reignited the often generational conflict that broke out after the police murder of George Floyd. Some journalists frame the conversation as one of human rights, while traditionalists want to apply a lens of neutrality.

And yet there is hardly a citizen in the United States who does not have a deeply held belief on abortion. This is also true of professional journalists. These views are complex and varied both outside and inside newsrooms. Public opinion polling tells us that the majority of Americans (58%) supports legal abortion in some or all circumstances and a minority (32%) wants to see abortion made illegal. These numbers have been relatively consistent since Gallup began asking the question in 1989.

Yet opinion polls are often contradictory on this topic and hide the wide range of views that Americans actually express. Newsrooms have an obligation to cover the entire story. That includes documenting what’s happening with those who are affronted as well as those who are celebrating.

The best journalism on abortion leans into complexity, Ripley says, like this 2015 Vox story and video where average citizens explain their personal views and embrace their own contradictions.

For another example, Ripley pointed to this 2021 New York Times analysis by Nate Cohn of contradictions in opinion polls. It concludes, “These seemingly incompatible findings suggest that a large number of voters either have complex and nuanced views or are so conflicted that even subtle changes in the wording of a question can yield huge changes in the results.”

A better approach

How do you get to stories like that? Start with the purpose of the journalism.

Newsrooms face two related challenges: Serving up journalism to a divided audience that helps everyone better understand the world and building a work culture where diverse journalists feel welcomed and respected no matter their viewpoints. If you are a newsroom leader, you have to do both. You won’t produce great journalism if your staff is demoralized.

Starting the internal conversation by reminding people to keep quiet is a less than helpful instinct. And it’s not even rooted in research.

“I can’t recall any research that demonstrates that the audience loses trust when journalists share personal views, particularly on abortion,” said Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News Project. “I would be skeptical of it, if it existed, because the issue is so complex.”

Objectivity — along with its companion, neutrality — is one of the most misunderstood values in journalism, both by those who champion the principles and those who want to burn them to the ground.

“When the concept of objectivity originally migrated to journalism (in the 1920s), it was not meant to imply that journalists were free of bias. Quite the contrary,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism.”

Objectivity was about developing a transparent approach to reporting out the facts, specifically to mitigate the possibility that bias will color the truth. Walter Lippmann himself suggested that journalism should imitate the scientific method, where assumptions are tested and verified.

In other words, objectivity is not a state of being, it’s a process.

What if newsrooms started by articulating a mission or promise to their audience about their goals in covering abortion? The note on top of this story from WITF on critical race theory is a great example of how a newsroom can explain what they want their journalism to accomplish. But very few newsrooms do this on the topic of abortion. Here are a couple of suggestions that Mayer and I brainstormed:

  • Our goal is to explore how public policy and the actions of public officials affect the lives of people in our community.
  • In the coming months, we aim to center a wide variety of community voices and experiences with the goal of helping people understand each other and talk across divides.
  • We intend to shed light on the complex decisions that health care providers and patients face as they make reproductive health choices.
  • Through our reporting, we want to explain the legal and political implications of this pending Supreme Court decision. 

When newsrooms don’t provide context around their coverage, people often perceive gaps between the news stories that are produced and what they believe a news organization should be doing.

“They assume the worst,” Mayer said of the audience. “They don’t give us the benefit of the doubt. But if you can point to a benchmark and say, ‘This is what we said we would do,’ people really like that. They know what to expect.”

RELATED TRAINING: How Any Journalist Can Earn Trust, a self-directed online course brought to you by Poynter and Trusting News

Ripley likes this idea, too. Developing journalistic goals around abortion coverage would allow newsrooms to discuss why some journalists feel stifled by the traditional sentiments.

Behind every high conflict is the understory, Ripley said. “When you get to the understory, you are arguing about deeper things.”

For instance, in a newsroom, one person might be concerned with what it means to be a good journalist, and another might be driven by what it means to support women. Still another person might be worried about what it means to respect all human life. When people can’t express their deeper concerns, they feel stifled.

“The more stifled people feel, the more extreme they get,” Ripley said. “Typically we have a bunch of assumptions about what the understory is for other people and mostly we are wrong.”

Inviting newsroom staff and the audience into an ongoing process to articulate and refine goals around abortion coverage would not only improve the journalism, it would also move the topic out of the realm of high conflict.

Not an easy pathway

I’m under no illusions that it would not eliminate the desire of some journalists to make their opinions known. But it would help newsroom staff members see the shared mission of the organization and then decide how they want to participate in the coverage.

By taking a concept like “covering abortion,” which is vague and unspoken, and making it specific and concrete, newsroom leaders have an opportunity to reshape the conversation about who can share their personal views and what the impact will be on that mission.

RELATED: Subscribe to The Cohort, Poynter’s twice-monthly newsletter about gender in media and journalism

Mayer thinks that most newsrooms will still want to curtail personal opinions. Although the public generally responds positively when newsrooms reveal relevant personal details about the people making news decisions, she’s never seen anyone do it on abortion. (One notable exception comes from former Los Angles Times executive editor Norman Pearlstine, who in 2019 shared a column about a personal experience with abortion pre-Roe v. Wade.)

It works with topics like immigration, education and disability. But abortion seems to be in a category all its own, largely because the debate pits religion and science against each other.

“God, that’s scary,” Mayer said of the thought of journalists sharing their experiences and views. “On almost any other topic, I’m so pro-transparency, but this is a tough one.”

Other journalism leaders have shared similar concerns with me. While some have loosened their policies on commenting on race, economic background, gender and sexual orientation, abortion remains forbidden territory.

I’m not so sure abortion is that different. If the journalism is fresh and solid, if it brings new information and insight to the public, I don’t think the public will turn away from it just because the people who made the journalism have shared their beliefs. It’s another story if the work is weak and pedestrian. Members of the public will find the holes and assume they exist because the journalists are biased.

Much of this approach is rooted in “green light” ethics, an idea my predecessors at Poynter taught me. Rather than starting with behaviors and outcomes that should be avoided (don’t lie, don’t be one-sided), start with the journalistic good you hope to accomplish (be accurate and complete, seek diverse voices).

Starting an ethical conversation with lofty journalism goals is the most reliable way to solve internal newsroom conflicts about what’s right and what’s ethical.

I’m not suggesting that there is a pathway to make these conversations within newsrooms any easier, only more productive. Of course, this approach takes more energy. Newsroom leaders have to first agree on their journalistic goals and purpose for their coverage of abortion. Ideally, this is influenced by audience feedback.

Once a mission around abortion coverage is articulated, then managers can lead conversations with their teams about each individual’s contribution to that mission. At the end of this process, there will still be journalists who desire to make their personal beliefs known. It will be easier for managers to sort those into two groups: those who would compromise credibility by doing so and those who would not.

“All of this requires letting go of some of the magical thinking we are prone to in newsrooms,” Ripley said. “Our goal used to be to tell you what happened and then to tell you what to think about it. Guess what? No one needs that anymore. They can find out what happened from a million sources. So, now how are you going to be helpful?”

This is not an easy pathway for managers. It takes more time, more intention and more emotional intelligence. But it will lead to a healthier and more unified culture with the newsroom. And it will produce better journalism.

More from Poynter:

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

More News

Back to News