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March 7, 2006

TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

Most folks don't know this about TNS, but I'm The NewStandard's primary "copy editor." That means I am usually the third and final editor to handle an article, and my job is to do proofreading and ensure compliance with our strict style rules. I'm not the best copy editor around, as some of you have been gracious enough to point out, but I do my best, and I think on the whole TNS rivals most of the huge-budget corporate outlets in this area.

Where we definitely surpass them, however, is in the rules we set (and try to follow). While they're focused on pleasing everyone, pretending to be objective and favoring liberal, conservative and corporate forces, we're following a very different set of reporting policies.

We are currently building a wiki-formatted NewStandard Stylebook, which isn't ready for public release. Soon you'll be able to view all of the hundreds of grammar, definition and journalistic method rules our reporters and editors follow when putting stories together. For now, I thought I'd give you a sneak peek at a draft entry relevant to today's top story...


There is probably no set of terms more divisive and derisive than these. The important factor to keep in mind when chosing which terms to use is that most statements, beliefs and terms regarding abortion have to do with access to relatively safe abortion, more than with the procedure itself. Even among people whose views are diametrically opposed on issues of abortion access, there is broad overlap regarding the desirability and even morality of the procedure itself.


  1. pro-choice
    • Someone who believes that women should have the right to choose to have an abortion, with or without applying modest caveats or restrictions, can be said to be pro-choice (at least to some degree) on the issue of abortion access.
      • Modest caveats and restrictions include:
        1. limits on second- or third-term abortions
        2. parental-guidance restrictions (unless used as a mechanism to limit abortion per se)
      • Modest caveats and restrictions do not include:
        1. limiting abortion to fetuses produced by rape or incest
        2. limiting abortion to cases where the mother's health or life is at stake
  2. anti-choice
    • Someone who believes women should not be able to opt to have an abortion under any circumstances, or under all but extreme circumstances (rape, incest, life/health of mother) is anti-choice on the issue of abortion. Regardless of what label they prefer, the label anti-choice should be used.
  3. anti-abortion
    • Anti-abortion is a mostly deprecated term; its use should be restricted to cases wherein a contrast is needed against the belief that abortion is a good thing per se -- a very rare opinion indeed. Most pro-choice individuals are anti-abortion, in that they say they would prefer no one be in need of an abortion. Therefore, calling some people anti-abortion (usually people who are anti-choice) implies that their opponents are pro-abortion, which is rarely the case.
  4. pro-abortion
    • See anti-abortion above. This term almost never carries useful meaning.
  5. pro-life
    • The term pro-life has very little applicable value. It is a euphemism for anti-choice that carries inherent spin. Sources' self-description as being pro-life should be kept in quotation marks -- including sources who say they are pro-choice and pro-life. Pro-life is either too vague to be of much linguistic value (what would be anti-life?), or it is improperly applied because few people are universally in favor of life itself.


jdeetz: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

Looks like the NewStandard is pro-clarity! Congratulations on another well begun job. Perhaps if enough of us copy and send this information to copy editors of "mainstream media," we'll find that the pro-clarity position is contageous. --an eternal optimist

Pro-Life2: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

Journalist: A person who reports the news without bias, one who reports only the facts. It is obvious that you are NOT a Journalist. You agree to call pro-choice people by the name they call themselves, then you define the pro-life people through your own bias ways.

Baby Killer: A person who believes in killing babies, one who is pro-choice in ideology because those who are pro-choice believe that abortion should be legal.

Abortionist: One who sucks babies apart within the womb, one who dismembers babies with sharp instruments tearing off their legs, necks, feet, hands, and torsos, one who burns babies with saline/salt solution causing them to thrash about painfully breathing the salt poison until they die, one who delivers a baby partially from the womb and with the baby's hands and feet noticeably moving drives a scissors into their skull and then sucks their brain tissue out-

soulsearch: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

pro-choice The term pro-choice has very little applicable value. It is a euphemism for pro-murder and carries an inherent spin. Sources' self- description as being pro-choice should be kept in quotation marks, as there is no choice for the baby.

pro-life The term pro-life refers to one who will respect and protect innocent life for all people under any and all circumstances.

pro-death One who believes in the right to take the life of a child in the womb at the whim of his/her mother.

anti-choice A term invented by the pro-death proponents to confuse the unwitting public. It assumes that the child in the womb has no right to a choice. Disregarding the fact the Almighty God views the child in the womb as a precious individual.

Anti-abortion One who is opposed to abortion. an·ti ( n t , -t ) n. pl. an·tis A person who is opposed to something, such as a group, policy, proposal, or practice.

Clarity cannot exist without without honesty.

PJD: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

As far as these establishing such guidelines as a general principle, I frankly feel pretty uncomfortable with them. They smack of some sort of authoritarianism to me - and a big waste of time and effort. And, the bias behind them is obvious even to someone with a "pro-choice" bias like myself.

If you continue with these guidelines, I see a big conflict coming...

As far as your specific word choices:

- "anti-abortion" vs. "anti choice" Anti-abortionists are most definitely "anti-abortion" not "anti-choice" as they very sincerely believe that killing a fetus at even a very early stage of development, is morally the same as killing an adult human, and therefore their moral convictions compel themselves to call it "murder", oppose abortion itself, and work very hard to see it becomes legal murder.

Now I certainly disagree with the anti-abortionists belief in absolute human rights for fetuses all the way back to the zygote, as does a large body of legal precedent. But, as someone who opposes capital punishment in all cases. I can understand their sentiments. Death penalty abolitionists in the US are likewise fighting a body of legal precedent, and I would be pretty pissed off if I was dismissed as only being against the free "choice" of a legal system to kill a person.

At the same time, "pro-choice", not "pro-abortion" is certainly the best description for those who support legal abortion as they do agree with the legal precedents, but certainly don' think abortion is a good thing. So you assessment here seems correct. far as "pro-life" you wrote:

"...or it is improperly applied because few people are universally in favor of life itself."

Can you clarify what you mean here? I would expect nearly everyone to be in favor of "life" (i.e earth's biosphere) itself.

marcus99nd: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

I also see some problems with these definitions (surprise!). It seems that we should recognize that we're dealing with groups of organized and organizing movements of people, two sides of a fight, which means we could choose to report on them using the labels they have chosen for themselves, b/c that's what they want. Only doing so for pro-choicers seems too slanted, in my opinion. Depending on the situation, descriptors could be added to make it clearer (maybe), such as "pro-life camp", or "self-styled", or using "community" or "movement". I don't know, haven't thought out the last part there.

Also, these names are propaganda, but I do think there is legitimate dispute over the negative implications of the names. For example, most pro-lifers do think pro-choicers are pro-death (in this respect).

Idea: a way out of this could be with the term "abortion rights." It combines words with a positive and negative implication and is more descriptive, less loaded, and less objectionable than any of the labels already adopted by the two sides. So pro-choice/abortionist people become pro-abortion rights people (or simply in favor of abortion rights, or an abortion rights group, etc.) and pro-lifers/anti-choicers become anti-abortion rights people (or against abortion rights, an anti-abortion rights group, etc.). I have been on both sides of this issue and don't mind the label on my current side and didn't before I switched. Hey-- it's my choice! (I'll be here all week)

Brian Dominick: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

It's good to see some controversy and dialog here.

This is much less a matter of bias than clarity, I assure you. It's kind of astonishing the things people think they can deduce from the way we write our hard-news stories.

The terms "anti-choice" and "pro-choice" are mutually exclusive. The terms "pro-life" and "anti-abortion" both include huge swaths of overlap between the anti-choice and pro-choice camps.

The term "pro-life" is ridiculous. Who isn't "pro-life"? There is no mutually exclusive term to use in contrast, especially since lots of people who believe abortion should be legal are strongly "pro-life."

Our policy is, as I made clear above, NOT focused on the issue of abortion, but on the issue of access to it. Some might be surprised to learn that a portion of the TNS staff collective considers themselves "pro-life" and "anti-abortion," meaning they believe abortion is a bad thing and preserving life is a good thing. Such beliefs are, in their view, independent of their opinion on whether it should be accessible.

The fact that we choose clear, rational language in presenting the news to our readership should not lead people to believe that we don't hold a diverse range opinions.

News outlets that allow anyone -- right or left -- to define themselves however they choose are doing a huge disservice to the rest of us, even if they're just relating the sources' supposed beliefs. Look back through TNS articles: you won't find many cases where reporters say what someone believes. Instead, we report what people say they believe. We can't test people's beliefs or feelings for accuracy, but we can test their stances, and we need a consistent language to do so with.

"Pro-choice" is a pretty crappy term, too, because like "life" it isn't specific enough to the issue at hand. Marcus suggested "pro-abortion-rights," and that's something we should consider. "Pro-choice" definitely doesn't do it, I just hadn't thought of introducing something new, though I don't see why we can't. Maybe we should just clarify that we're talking about choice vis-a-vis abortion access each time we introduce the subject.

As for a stylebook being "authoritarian," as a staunch anti-authoritarian I have to take exception. When people voluntarily enter into a contract to employ a consistent system of communication, so that subjective definitions and terminology preferences don't get in the way of clarity, that's hardly "authoritarianism" at work. Applying a term like that to a stylebook is a total dilution -- what was "Hitler" if a styles policy is "authoritarian"? It really doesn't leave much room for degrees of tyranny.

If we didn't have a styles policy, two articles on the same subject could use very different terms. Writers would never know what to expect, or what editors preferred. Editors, in fact, would not know what to do with articles, except follow their own fancies. But if you can imagine how much time it would take in arguing after the fact because someone made an inconsistent or disagreeable editorial decision -- well, the hours we save alone make it imperative that we have a policy in advance, and that we write it down.

marcus99nd: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

This spawned some discussion among some friends of mine, one of whom wrote something perhaps relevant to the clarity of these terms: "What really pisses me off is when "pro choice" people refer to "pro life" people as "anti-choice". Being against abortion is not being "anti choice"--the woman (presumably) did have the CHOICE as to whether or not to have sex in the first place. The "pro life" people are almost all "pro death penalty", which means they're not pro life."

Benjamin Melançon: Perspective

Any fears people may have had of a lack of ideological diversity among TNS' readership have been laid to rest. Reading Brian's post on abortion-politics related terms, I was thinking he must know he's walking into a firestorm here.

My own conclusions about the least-weighted words to use are on some half-salvaged hard drive, and do fear because I will share them if I find them. In the meantime while I admit that while pro-choice / anti-choice is the fairest pair of terms among those mentioned, it is quite unsatisfactory. Even the most recent article most often uses pro-choice and anti-abortion, a compromise that abortion prohibitionists still wouldn't like, but is the norm.

But in my opinion even more important than the use of language (a huge responsibility), newspapers ought to constantly ask "what matters" to put all issues in perspective.

This gets very interesting when the issue is abortion.

First, I'll be clear where I'm coming from. As a particularly pro-life person -- vegan, against all killing, including the death penalty -- who used to joke in bad taste that I'd make up my mind on abortion when I made up my mind on eating eggs (I dodged that, actually-- stopped eating eggs on the basis of the treatment of chickens), I came to the final conclusion that abortion should be legal by looking at it as a class issue.

The rich will always have access to safe abortions, and everyone else will always have access to unsafe abortions.

My odd way of looking at these things is not what I mean by putting an issue in perspective. I mean a newspaper must always be going back to facts and numbers for want of a better way to decide what issues are important.

There are about 58 million deaths worldwide each year, many of which come earlier than they should, including at least seven million acknowledged preventable deaths of children under five.

In addition, 31.5 million pregnancies do not come to term because of miscarriages and still-births. At least as bad as an abortion from anyone's perspective, most of these could surely be successful births with better health for women and better medical care.

And there are about 46 million abortions worldwide each year.

This is a lot of abortions. What I think virtually all of us can agree is an unacceptable number. In fact, I think most of us can agree we want to move toward zero abortions.

The question, then, is how. As the world population heads toward 10 or 12 billion, increasing the current 132 million births a year by a third again probably isn't people's preferred solution. Indeed, it isn't possible. More than 40% of abortions are already illegal. The cause of abortions is not legal access-- it's unintended pregnancies.

From the Guttmacher Institute:

Each year, more than half of unintended pregnancies worldwide -- 46 million, or two in 10 total pregnancies -- are resolved by induced abortion. Throughout the world, women give similar reasons for deciding to have an abortion: They are too young or too poor to raise a child; they are estranged from or on uneasy terms with their sexual partner; they are unemployed; they do not want a child while in school; or they want or need to work.

Defining abortion as murder puts on young women what is obviously a societal problem. At the very least men must share the responsibility for unintended pregnancy, but that's hardly a start. Look at the reasons: people who don't feel they are in a place in their lives to raise children, and didn't mean to become pregnant.

That gives two clear roles for society to play in ending abortion: reducing unintended pregnancies and enabling people to raise their children.

Sex education and easy access to contraceptives are the quick, easier ways to reduce unintended pregnancies (both of which are frequently fought against by leaders of groups claiming to be against abortion).

A societal guarantee that every child born will have the resources to make the most of the opportunity of life -- which could be done, without causing an incentive to have children, through an annual redistribution of 4 or 5% of total wealth (a simple act of justice in the face of grossly unfair inequality) -- would lay the basis for the most complete solution. With the inclusion of simple and legally secure adoption, abortion could be legal, societally disapproved, and practically unheard of.

(As young people gain higher levels of education, opportunity, and control over their lives, unintended pregnancies also decrease-- raising people's economic levels, therefore, lowers both main causes of abortion.)

Making abortion illegal, since 20 million of the 46 million annual abortions are already illegal, is one of the least effective responses.

If someone doesn't take saving the lives of children and all people seriously, and take reducing unwanted pregnancies and ensuring all people have the resources to bring up their children to full potential seriously, I don't necessarily take his or her concerns about the suffering of unborn humans seriously. And if I don't take abortion seriously, it's fair for you to feel the same about me.

What's clear is that there is a huge, largely politically mobilized majority opposed to unneeded suffering and death, and what we will accomplish together when united will be immensely great for the world.

Toward zero abortions. Toward zero preventable deaths.

... if there are enough people who give a damn.

Other Sources of Numbers Used:

P.S. Sorry about straying way off the topic. The NewStandard does a great job. If they can find the language to get rid of this artificial division of people who care about life -- and we get their daily e-mail in everybody's inboxes first -- TNS may save the world. Anyone who would like to rip off this essay and strip out the stuff about me that would turn people off is welcome to, but please let me know.

rbch: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

Just to proofread your style guide: "chosing" in the second sentence should be "choosing."

cs30109: TNS Style Guidelines for Abortion Coverage

Wow, what a completely unfair set of guidelines. It's perfectly OK to use the term "pro-choice," but apparently pro-lifers have to be referred to by their opponents' favorite term, "anti-choice." This way, you guarantee that every article using these guidelines will be implicitly biased towards the pro-choice viewpoint, because you are allowing them to frame the debate as one of "choice." A pro-life person is not against "choice" in general, they simply believe that choice does not apply to the decision to take the life of a human being. They believe that the debate should be focused on "life."

You object to "pro-life" because "few people are universally in favor of life itself." But that's true of choice as well--no one is universally in favor of EVERY choice. It begs the question, "choice to do what?" You also ask "what would be anti-life?" From the pro-life perspective, pro-choice people are, in fact, "anti-life." The term "anti-life" is EXACTLY as accurate as the term "anti-choice."

Both groups should be referred to by their own terms. Pro-choice people believe the debate should center around "choice," while pro-life people believe it should center around "life." Thus, both terms contain the respective groups' central arguments. To call pro-lifers "anti-choice" denies them an equal and fair hearing.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.