The Loaded Labeling of Providers and Clinics in the Heated Abortion Debate : NPR Public Editor An NPR report (and your ombudsman) wrongly used the unfairly broadbrush phrases "abortion doctor" and "abortion clinic."
NPR logo The Loaded Labeling of Providers and Clinics in the Heated Abortion Debate

The Loaded Labeling of Providers and Clinics in the Heated Abortion Debate

We don't say a physician is an STD doctor. Or a child-birth doctor. Or a breast-exam doctor.

So as listener Marcia Bryant of Cleveland, OH, objected, why did a Morning Edition broadcast earlier this week refer to an obstetrician as an "abortion doctor"? In seeking reasonable dialogue in the vitriolic abortion debate, Bryant uncovered a weakness in the usage of NPR's own style guide.

The segment from justice correspondent Carrie Johnson explored new measures the Obama administration has launched to restrict protesters outside clinics that perform abortions. Johnson twice called them "abortion clinics" and once referred to a doctor, George Tiller, who was murdered two years ago as an "abortion doctor." She added that the Wisconsin man who was arrested for the murder "told police he wanted to shoot abortion doctors."

Bryant wrote:

"Certainly you realize that abortion providers are OB/GYN's. Why not refer to them as such? Why do you refer to them by this one procedure? Do you think Planned Parenthood has separate "abortion doctors" and "STD doctors" and "pap smear doctors?" At the very least you can call them abortion providers."

She's right. Alternative titles are more accurate, avoiding the over-simplification of labeling OB/GYNs after one of the many services they provide.

In dealing with the issue earlier, NPR's own internal style guide says: "Do not refer to murdered Dr George Tiller as an 'Abortion Doctor.' Instead we should say Tiller operated a clinic where abortions are performed. We can also make reference to the fact that Tiller was a doctor who performed late term abortions."

The guide adds: "NPR doesn't use the term 'abortion clinics.' We say instead, 'medical or health clinics that perform abortions.' The point is to not to use abortion before the word clinic. The clinics perform other procedures and not just abortions."

When brought to Johnson's attention, she responded:

Thanks, this was my first story on the abortion issue since joining NPR and while I tried to vet my story with others who cover the issue more regularly, neither they nor I caught this. The responsibility is of course mine and I accept it. I will be more cautious in the future and will consult the NPR online style guide.

Johnson wasn't alone. The listener's letter sent me back to look at a post I did Tuesday about an NPR story on Kansas' abortion legislation debate. I myself used the phrase "abortion clinic."

What Johnson's response, and my own negligence, does underline is that the style guide is frequently not followed, or consulted, inside NPR. On abortion coverage alone NPR staffers used "abortion clinic" on air or in an online headline three other times this year.

Labels carry consequences. It would be too much to say that media usage of "abortion doctor" was behind the murder of Tiller. But the label certainly channels hostility against doctors who do the operation. Anti-abortion rights advocates use such phrases in an attempt to frame the issue from their singular point of view. That is their right. But the media's responsibility is to be accurate in framing an issue in all its complexity. Stoking tempers doesn't help either.