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How abortion language evolves

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

For decades, journalists have worked to separate the language in news stories about abortion from the political rhetoric used by those fighting to criminalize or decriminalize the medical procedure.

The Associated Press Stylebook, which NPR follows, encourages journalists to use precise and neutral terms. Instead of "pro-choice," use "abortion rights." Instead of "pro-life," say "anti-abortion." NPR has reinforced these policies with its own recommendations. The idea behind this guidance has been to scrub the emotional and political arguments from the language and to describe the specific issues and policies without adopting the words of the people entrenched in the political battle.

The phrase "abortion clinic" is among the terms that AP Style and NPR standards editors have cautioned journalists to be careful with. Why? There are hardly any clinics established just to provide abortions. Most clinics also deliver a range of health services, from cancer screenings to reproductive counseling. Calling such a place an abortion clinic would be inaccurate.

And yet, NPR did just that in a recent headline about the vice president's political stop at a Planned Parenthood clinic. NPR's chief Washington editor told us why he thought the language choice was appropriate.

This specific moment is possibly a small window into the way the public debate on abortion is shifting and the language in our news reports is adjusting. Our policies might need to catch up. Although "abortion clinic" is reductive, it's not necessarily perceived as pejorative. In fact, as voters in several states consider whether abortions should be protected in their state constitutions, it seems that people have a lot more practice discussing the issue of abortion.

While public support for legal abortion has remained stable since the Pew Research Center started measuring it in 1995, it's actually growing in the states that have restricted access. That support may be why those who were promoting the VP's visit to the clinic explicitly called the site an "abortion clinic." Rather than the term being derogative, it's morphed into something more neutral.

Read on to see why one reader objected to the headline and how and why an NPR editor was comfortable with the wording, at least in this specific case.

Because readers of this newsletter are interested in the state of the news, we're also spotlighting a story about a new twist in the local journalism landscape that presents a new set of ethical challenges. — Kelly McBride


Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

A mischaracterization of Planned Parenthood?

Holly Peters wrote on March 14: The headline for this article is: "Harris visits an abortion clinic, a first for any president or vice president." The authors of this are framing the story according to anti-abortionist rhetoric. In fact, Vice President Harris was speaking at a Planned Parenthood clinic which still provides abortions. ... Planned Parenthood as an agency provides general gynecologic healthcare. When I was uninsured, I went to Planned Parenthood for my annual pap smear and exam. This kind of headline skews the issue towards polarization.

Vice President Kamala Harris visited a Planned Parenthood clinic in Saint Paul, Minn., on March 14. "The White House believes this is the first time any U.S. president or vice president has visited a facility that provides abortions along with other reproductive care," NPR's digital story reported. On Morning Edition, White House correspondent Deepa Shivaram described the clinic as a facility that provides reproductive care, in addition to abortions, including birth control and preventative care.

We contacted the Washington Desk to ask about the angle of the story. Krishnadev Calamur, NPR's chief Washington editor, said he did not feel that the story was framed with anti-abortion rhetoric.

"The Biden campaign has made abortion rights a centerpiece of its reelection strategy," he wrote in an email. "And it's no coincidence that after several events where she has met with patients who have received abortions, and doctors who have performed them, the vice president went to a facility that provides abortion services."

Calamur said the decision to have Harris visit an abortion-providing facility in a swing state was strategic, and it highlighted the contrasting abortion viewpoints of the campaigns of both President Biden and former President Donald Trump. That was the story's focus, he said.

"The job of reporters on our desk is to provide the political context to decisions by politicians — and this is why we framed the visit the way we did," Calamur said.

The story reported that Harris met with Dr. Sarah Traxler, the chief medical officer for Planned Parenthood North Central States. The doctor said she is "a proud abortion provider," and called the visit "historic." Planned Parenthood North Central States' website reflects this sentiment with this statement at the top of its homepage: "We are proud to offer abortion care in Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. We are here for you and we'll help you find the care you need."

While the story focused on the newsworthiness of a vice president stopping at a clinic that provides abortion services, both versions of the story noted that the Planned Parenthood facility offers other reproductive care. Because Harris' expressed goal in visiting the clinic was, in part, to focus on the Democrats' support for access to abortion, NPR's choice to describe the medical office as an "abortion clinic" in the headline was accurate, appropriate and fair. — Emily Barske Wood


The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

News mirages: When the largest company in town steps in to fill a void

There's one primary local news site covering Richmond, Calif.: The Richmond Standard . It's owned by Chevron, and named for a previous company, Standard Oil. Chevron owns a refinery in town, which happens to be the largest employer. It's also the largest taxpayer and one of the causes of environmental pollution in the working-class community of 115,000 people. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik and Miranda Green, director of investigations for the news site Floodlight, went to Richmond to see what that means for news consumers. The Standard has created what Folkenflik and Green call "a news mirage," an image that the community is served by a comprehensive news provider. The news site covers road closures and community events, but prioritizes Chevron's messaging over community information needs. For instance, the site did not cover a 2021 spill at the refinery that dumped diesel fuel into San Francisco Bay. The report suggests that news mirages may become more frequent in the local news landscape. This deep investigation is a worthwhile listen if you care about the future of local news. Folkenflik and Green share even more insights on the daily podcast Consider This from NPR with host Mary Louise Kelly. — Amaris Castillo

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

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