What's In A Name? When It Comes To The Abortion Debate, Plenty

If the third-rail of American politics is Social Security (and I think the president has shown it probably still is in many ways), then its equal for the media may very well be the abortion debate. Touching it doesn't mean certain harm but it almost inevitably means you're going to make one side or the other angry. Unlike politicians and Social Security though, it's not something the media can ignore. So when I saw a question raised about it in the comments section of a completely unrelated entry, I felt it important to address.

The essence of the question from ikez78 is thus:

Why does CBS continue to present abortion supporters as 'abortion rights' people in their newscasts?
In fact, CBS News has a policy of how to characterize the two sides of this fight. In most public discourse those who support legalized abortion are commonly known as "pro-choice" while those opposed to it are frequently referred to as "pro-life." At CBS News, they are termed "pro-abortion rights" and "anti-abortion rights." Here's how Linda Mason, the senior vice president for standards and practices, explains it:
We wanted to take the most neutral way to characterize people who support and oppose abortion, to call them pro-abortion rights and anti-abortion rights as opposed to using pro-choice and pro-life. We tried to keep it in the most neutral way that we can – to not offer opinion one way or the other.
Dotty Lynch, senior political editor for CBS News adds this context:
The words "choice" and "life" were code words devised by pollsters and public relations folks to avoid using the word "abortion," which is distasteful to people. But, the issue being discussed is, in fact, abortion and the debate is mainly over whether it should be legal, whether it is a constitutional right. To imply (or state) that one side is against "life" and the other against "choice" is imprecise. If the issue is the right to have an abortion, why not tell it like it is?

Over the past ten years most people (including me from time to time) have shorthanded the debate by using the phrases choice and life and I think most of our viewers and readers understand what the terms are referring to. But, I think the policy of avoiding code words is a good one.

Indeed, avoiding the use of "code words" is a good idea. This is an emotional, divisive debate and one fraught with assumptions, code and suspicion on all sides. It's also one full of semantic arguments like this one and no policy, regardless how well thought-out, is going to satisfy everyone. If one is not "pro-life" are they "pro-death?" You see the problems.

I think it speaks well for CBS to have a reasoned, established policy on this subject. In this highly-charged discussion, it's really all you can ask. There's also something to be said for not allowing one side or the other dictate to a media organization how they are to be characterized. That is a decision within the editorial purview of each individual press outlet.

My slight quibble would be the negative-positive connotation assigned to each side. Labeling one side "pro" and the other "anti" appears to give the one a positive feeling and the other a negative impression. Of course, even that is subject to one's position on the issue. For those on the "pro-life" side, being "anti-abortion rights" would presumably be positive and vice-versa. This simple act of description illustrates the intensity of the abortion debate, and demonstrates some of the tough judgments news organizations like CBS have to make.