In a matter of weeks, the Texas Heartbeat Act has become one of the most covered news stories of the year; unfortunately, much of that coverage has been biased from the moment of its conception. The level of partisan journalism rose even higher on Thursday night, as an Obama-appointed judge issued an order blocking courts from enforcing the Texas law, which protects unborn babies with a fetal heartbeat from being aborted.
The legacy media’s attempt to manipulate the narrative through the use of language became clear, as nearly every story on the subject includes the exact same words — or more specifically, one word:
- NPR’s “Morning Edition” told its listeners (at your expense), “A federal judge has temporarily blocked the state’s restrictive abortion law”;
- The New York Times describes the “strict Texas law” as “the most restrictive in the country”;
- USA Today reported, “Federal judge blocks Texas restrictive abortion law,” working into the headline that the judge said the law could cause “irreparable harm”;
- The world’s largest news service, the Associated Press, issued a breaking news bulletin that read, “Federal judge orders Texas to suspend the nation’s most restrictive abortion law, which banned most abortions statewide”;
- The Washington Post and ABC News both published an AP story that begins, “A federal judge ordered Texas to suspend the most restrictive abortion law in the U.S.”;
- CNN’s Don Lemon called the Texas Heartbeat Act “restrictive” five times in two hours; and
- The U.S. media’s parrot-like press coverage has affected foreign outlets like the BBC, France 24, and Germany’s Deutsche Welle, which also described the law as “restrictive.”
The continual use of the same adjective reveals more than the legacy media’s lemming-like conformity and lack of imagination. Their word choice proves that the mass media have already accepted one side of the abortion debate, and their stories exist to promote their preexisting biases.
What to notice: The legacy media always refer to pro-life bills that protect human beings from being aborted as “restrictions,” “restrictive,” or “strict.” On the other hand, they call laws that remove protections for unborn children “protections,” because they “protect” abortion and its practitioners.
This bias is not restricted to just the Texas bill, nor to one or two reporters, but appears in the language surrounding every pro-life bill, in every news outlet, every time.
First, let’s look at the pro-life policies the media consider “restrictions”:
- Not forcing taxpayers to fund U.S. abortions: NBC News referred to the Hyde Amendment, which protects taxpayers from funding most cases of abortion-on-demand, as “Hyde restrictions.” The policy is favored by 58% of Americans;
- Not forcing taxpayers to fund overseas abortions: The Washington Post reported that President Joe Biden lifted “restrictions” on taxpayer funding of foreign abortions, including the 1973 Helms Amendment; 77% of Americans, and 55% of Democrats, oppose using taxpayer funds to pay for abortions in foreign nations;
- Not forcing taxpayers to fund abortion advocacy and referrals: When President Donald Trump announced that those who receive U.S. taxpayer funding may not refer women for an abortion, the Associated Press reported, “Trump abortion restrictions effective immediately”;
- Protecting babies from being aborted based on their race, sex, or cognitive delay status: The Washington Post complained that “Indiana, which already has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation, made it illegal to abort a fetus because it is diagnosed with Down syndrome or because of its race or gender”;
- Requiring abortionists to meet standard surgical requirements. CBS News described a Louisiana law requiring abortionists to have the right to admit patients to a nearby hospital in the (all-too-frequent) event of a botched abortion as a restriction, although admitting privileges are required for virtually every other form of surgery; and
- Just about anything else: The Washington Post, NPR, CNN, and Vox News refer to all pro-life laws as “restrictions.” For example, NBC News’ list of “restrictions” included any “waiting period, state-mandated counseling, an ultrasound and a requirement that minors get permission from a parent or guardian or receive a judicial bypass.”
Now, consider the things the media describe as “protections” in the abortion debate.
- On September 29, Andrea Mitchell of NBC News said that the “Women’s Health Protection Act,” which would strike down nearly every pro-life law nationwide, “codified protections against challenges with threats to Roe v. Wade”;
- When New York state passed its own version of this bill in 2019, the AP’s David Klepper wrote that the Empire State had “enacted one of the nation’s strongest protections for abortion rights. … Nine other states including California, Washington and Oregon have already put protections for abortion rights in their state statute.”; and
- CNN produced a map of states “protecting the right to abortion” The Washington Post did one better, producing a color-coded map of the United States that graphically depicts which states have “more restrictions” and which have “more protections.”
The opening line of a CBS News story perfectly encapsulated the state of the legacy media’s reporting: “The Supreme Court reaffirmed abortion protections on Monday, striking down a Louisiana abortion restriction.”
This laden word choice is deeply important, because only 40% of people ever read a news story beyond the headline, according to a study from the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute. Shallow knowledge and outrage also drive social media, where 59% of Twitter users share stories without ever reading them.
The impact of media bias is obvious: When readers read a headline saying that a state passed a new “restriction,” it produces a negative connotation. When they read that a state passed a new “protection,” it produces a positive connotation. So, what lies behind this editorial choice?
“Words matter”: The stark contrast in media coverage of pro-life and anti-life laws is certainly not because journalists do not appreciate the importance of language. On the contrary, they are keenly self-conscious about the way word choice affects their coverage. For example, The Associated Press ran a lengthy, navel-gazing story by David Bauder about whether the January 6 Capitol Riot should be called a riot, a protest, or an insurrection, because “words matter.” And the media certainly believe words matter when it comes to abortion. In 2019, NPR issued an official “Guidance Reminder” that its employees should never use the phrase “the unborn” and adding the scientifically dubious and self-refuting sentence, “Babies are not babies until they are born.”
The Associated Press is right about one thing: language matters. Americans would not describe a bill that outlaws dog-fighting “harsh,” “strict,” or “restrictive.” The media did not describe their proponents as “zealots” or “fanatics,” nor did they call Michael Vick a “sporting rights advocate” for taking part in such bloody, abusive spectacles. “Certainly mainstream reporters, who weren’t in the bag for criminal franchises that sponsor vicious dog-fights, wouldn’t use such language,” wrote John Zmirak at The Stream. “Nor would we speak of ‘harsh’ laws banning spousal rape, domestic violence, or child porn”:
But news organizations whose staff overwhelmingly favor legal abortion, from bottom to top, use such language about laws intended to protect unborn children. … Not only do most journalists agree on abortion; most of them don’t even have any pro-life friends.
In fact, journalists use this wording with the full knowledge that it mimics the language of the abortion industry. Yet they employ this formulation because they have decided that abortion is a positive good, an unalienable right, and that any law seeking to override the unrestricted right to abortion in any case and for any reason is harmful. Their stories’ content follows their word choice. With these ideological presuppositions, they produce pieces of advocacy rather than works of journalism.
Zmirak says the first step toward reality is to refuse to perpetuate inaccurate language about pro-life protections:
Don’t speak of “banning” abortions. Talk about “protecting unborn Americans.” Hence we should say that a law “protects unborn Americans starting at 20 weeks after conception.” Or that a law “denies protection to unborn Americans conceived by rape.”
Don’t call a good law “harsh” or even “strict.” Call it “principled” and “comprehensive.” Don’t call a weak law “liberal” but “lax.” Describe our current situation, where a child may be aborted for any reason all through the nine months of pregnancy as “chaotic.” It’s a “Wild West,” “Darwinian” legal climate where women and doctors have “the power of life and death over every unborn American.”
Until the legacy media — or even some self-proclaimed conservatives — get this right, the least informed media consumers can do is notice the game being played.
This is the second in a collection of articles dissecting the ways the media bias news stories. Read part one.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.