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NPR chides itself for “abortion doctor” reference

There aren’t very many subjects that NPR listeners won’t fight about, including tinnitus, circumcision, and Yellowstone Park bears. But when it comes to abortion—now that’s when you get the 300 comment threads. I’ve got to concur, however, with NPR listener Marcia Bryant of Cleveland, Ohio, who complained about a NPR Morning Edition story calling an obstetrician an “abortion doctor”:

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.

According to NPR’s ombudsman, the NPR style guide deals with the matter as follows:

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.”

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.

NPR ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos agreed with the complaint. “We don’t say a physician is an STD doctor,” he noted. “Or a child-birth doctor. Or a breast-exam doctor.”

Interestingly, this discussion comes on the tail end of a debate between Schumacher-Matos and journalism Professor Jay Rosen over whether a story about efforts by Kansas anti-abortion activists to pass tougher regulations on clinics that perform abortions. Rosen charged that the piece amounted to a form of “he said/she said” journalism in which the validity of the safety claims were not explored. Schumacher-Matos defended the piece.

“Rosen apparently wanted the report to explicitly prove that the regulations were harassment,” he wrote. “If that was his concern, the public health experts felt it was sufficiently communicated. His criticism, however, does demonstrate that NPR’s reporting comes under attack from both the right and the left.”

To which Rosen has posted a new response:

I think this is lame. You can judge for yourself , but I say there was nothing particularly “left” in my post criticizing NPR for relying on he said, she said. True, I have no sympathy for abortion opponents in Kansas, but I also don’t know–and didn’t claim to know–what an honest attempt to investigate these clashing truth claims would find. Maybe the Kansas regulations do have a public health justification, and some basis in common sense. I doubt it, but without investigating myself, how do I know? Isn’t this why we need journalists willing to dig into the matter? Isn’t this why we need NPR?

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