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Columnist
Perils and pitfalls of a story that makes no one happy
By Jim Davis | Daily Herald DuPage County Editor
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Published: 8/31/2007 12:28 AM

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Sometimes, in our quest to do the right thing, we make things worse.

Such was the case in a story the other day on one of the touchiest topics we cover -- abortion. It is, frankly, one of those can't-win types of stories where people have especially strong opinions -- on both sides of the issue -- and will never be completely pleased with how we cover it. Some of the displeasure even comes within our newsroom.

This past Saturday, more than 1,000 protesters and counter-protesters lined either side of New York Street in Aurora to express their views on next month's opening of a huge Planned Parenthood clinic.

The story our reporter wrote for Sunday's paper initially used the well-known terms "pro-life" and "pro-choice" to describe the combatants. But an editor at the end of the editing process realized our practice-- not just at the Daily Herald, but any newspapers following Associated Press guidelines -- is not to use those terms. Both are somewhat polarizing expressions that can color the tone of a story, bringing its objectivity into question. Instead we try to use more neutral-sounding terms that explain who stands where on the issue. Phrases such as "abortion foes" or "abortion rights proponents" are preferred.

But in making the substitutions, the editor made portions of the story incorrect. The result was a lengthy correction, including clarifying the name of the group leading protests, the Pro-Life Action League, which had been inadvertently changed, too.

As one might expect, we got our share of calls and letters of complaints, accusing of us being biased against the protesters. I have to tell you that's not terribly uncommon, anyway, because we media types often are accused of having a liberal bias in favor of abortion.

It was at about this time that I heard from another executive of the paper who suggested that our coverage had gone too far in the other direction, that we were biased in favor of the protesters, giving them too much ink, letting too much of their incendiary dialogue into the paper. A couple other editors echoed some similar concerns, so I did what any other clear-thinking editor would do: I freaked out.

Perhaps that's an overstatement, but if I can't use hyperbole on myself, what good is it? What I did do was a review of our coverage during the past two weeks. I even counted the number of paragraphs in some stories (as one of the protesters did) to see which ones represented the views of the abortion foes and how many were the viewpoints of the people defending the clinic. I also tried to recap the main focus of each story to see if our overall balance was good. Here are the highlights:

Thursday, Aug. 30: Abortion foes may picket the homes of clinic workers; clinic officials say the protesters have carried things too far.

Wednesday, Aug. 29: Story reported on deadline from Aurora City Council meeting in which more than a hundred protesters complain Planned Parenthood lied to city officials about who they were when they came to town.

Tuesday, Aug. 28: City defends the actions of its police department in wake of a federal lawsuit on behalf of the protesters that the cops harassed them with conflicting directions on how protesters could conduct themselves.

Sunday, Aug. 26: The aforementioned story about the protest that drew more than 1,000 people. Sorry, we just plain screwed this one up.

Tuesday, Aug. 21: Interview with Planned Parenthood CEO outlining all the services that will be offered in the soon-to-open clinic.

Friday, Aug. 17: Opening paragraph focuses on hundreds of protesters vowing to "stop the poison from flowing into Aurora." In the second paragraph, president of Illinois NOW calls on "the extremists" to go home.

Maybe you've been following this drama closely, and are aware of many more details of these stories and their nuance. Have we been fair? Balanced? I leave that for you to decide, or feel free to let me know what you think.

I won't be surprised if I hear that we've erred -- on both sides of the issue.

jdavis@dailyherald.com