Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Off Mic

Reporting on Abortion

The first time I saw the truck with the grisly billboard-sized pictures of so-called "aborted fetuses," I was in Hillcrest with some friends. It was several years ago, shortly after moving to San Diego. The pictures were grotesque and obviously meant to provoke a reaction. I had never seen anything like it before and my initial reaction was "Who's driving?" If that sounds odd, it's only because as a journalist, I've always been fascinated with extremist groups and extremists themselves. So when the issue of abortion resurfaced on the national level after the Supreme Court upheld a ban on "partial-birth abortion," I thought it was time to meet the guy who drove the truck.

When I pitched the story to Full Focus' executive producer, Natalie Walsh, I was unfocused, had done little research and was fairly uncommitted. She liked the idea of tackling a subject we don't hear much about on the news. She said, "Yes, pursue the story," and sent me off to do some research.

What happened next surprised me most as a journalist. When I talked to friends, neighbors and colleagues, they questioned my motive for telling this story. Why would I wade into this debate? Did I have my own agenda? It made me feel defensive. Some asked why I would give airtime to "those people." One freelance photographer told me he didn't want any part of this story.


A week after my first meeting with Natalie, I told her I wanted out of the abortion story. "I don't want to do this. People are getting mad at me," I said. It's emotional, volatile, and divisive. A story with no resolution or satisfying conclusion. "Maybe that's why we should do this," she said. "Because no one else will."

For the next several weeks, photojournalist Erica Simpson and I immersed ourselves in the abortion debate. We never met the truck driver, but did meet a woman who regularly protests outside an abortion clinic. She chases people and cars, shouting her anti-abortion message. She displays giant cardboard pictures of what she says are aborted fetuses. I confess, I was uncomfortable and embarrassed. I wondered if the people driving by knew I was a reporter, or did they think I was another protester. There seemed to be no comfortable distance between me as journalist and the subject I was covering.

Later, we sat down and interviewed her. This same woman, who shouted so desperately, looked so fierce, and seemed so rabid in front of that abortion clinic, turned out to be a warm, intelligent and kind woman who truly believed she was doing the right thing.

We spoke with women who had abortions and were willing to tell us their stories. Some with regret, others grateful they had the option. And I wondered, as I often do, why people are willing to share their most personal stories in such a public way. In the end, I believe they want to help others by sharing their own experiences. Their trust in me to be true to their intent is both daunting and humbling.

Many journalists subscribe to "objectivity." But I find myself wondering whether true objectivity is even possible. As people, we all have a point of view. As a woman, a mother, a Canadian who grew up in a poor working class neighborhood, and a journalist who believes in public broadcasting, I view the world through my experiences. A truly "objective" report is merely a transcript with no insight, no perspective, and without critical thinking. But even though an honest report can allow personal insight into a story, it must stop short of skewing it with opinion and judgment.


The stories we choose to cover and not cover are more revealing of our biases -- the people we interview or choose not to interview, the questions we ask and don't ask. And to remain unbiased, we can't shy away from issues or people that may offend or disagree with us. After all, the most we can hope for as journalists is balance and fairness in our attempt to report the truth.

As a postscript, I watched the first story in our series, Choice and Regret , at a friend's house with a small group of women and a bottle of wine. I watched my friends react. They got mad, cursed at the TV, and recounted their own personal stories. For the next few hours, we talked about abortion, sex, pregnancy and motherhood. For an issue so divisive, so emotional and unclear, that may be all I can hope for -- that the story inspired an informed conversation, aware of two sides, holding some glimmer of understanding into an issue that is so often muffled by stigma and trepidation.

-- Joanne Faryon is a reporter for KPBS News and Full Focus . Please read our guidelines before posting comments.

Leslie Patkay
July 06, 2007 at 11:20 PM
I followed Ms. Faryons's story "Choice and Regret" with great interest. Due to the inherently controversial and divisive nature of this issue, these kind of topics don't always get the exposure so necessary for all of us to fully understand both sides of the argument BEFORE laws are passed that will effect us all. With the presidential debates in full swing, it's a good time to revisit this emotional issue with our candidates. So Ms. Faryon should be congratulated on a well conceived, balanced and objective presentation on a truly controversial issue. Please keep up the good work. -----

Dave Rider
July 07, 2007 at 10:29 PM
Congratulations on a thoughtful exploration of an issue that is usually reduced to simplistic slogans on both sides or, more commonly, stony silence. I extend that to both the reporter and the assignment editor who was brave to give it the go-ahead -- there are many other stories that she could have suggested that would have been easier, risked no condemnation and ultimately generated no meaningful discussion. As for objectivity, I think you're right -- journalists obviously have opinions and it shapes everything they do. What they shouldn't do is prevent them from hearing both sides and presenting them fairly. Although I learned a lot from this piece, I couldn't tell from it if you are pro- or anti-abortion (or whatever terms people want to apply). The tough thing for a journalist, I think, is identifying their opinion publicly (especially with politics) because it hands extremists a tool to dry and discredit the messenger, no matter how fair the message. Thanks!

July 09, 2007 at 10:23 PM
I'd have to agree- the choice of which story to cover or which person to interview is where most bias lies. A lot of media organizations have misconceptions of what is important to their audience and end up choosing the safest, fluffiest story to who won on American Idol, the latest Paris Hilton jail attire, consumer reports, etc. Rather than re-evaluate their approach, the gatekeepers fault the topic and leave it for the extremists and politicians to interpret for us- and that's exactly how it becomes the hot potato that everyone's scared to hold. Journalism should be a confrontation with reality, rather than an escape from it and it seems a crucial part of that are the journalists constantly challenging themselves.

Tracey Madigan
September 01, 2007 at 11:17 PM
What a refreshing commentary. As a fellow journalist, I know that the thought process you went through preparing this piece is common, yet nearly always unspoken. In fact, I'm not sure many reporters realize why they feel the angst they do when covering certain subjects. I recognized my emotions in your description, but I'm not sure I could have pinpointed them while I was actually living them! Some subjects are a challenge to cover, and it is difficult to gather the elements for a thorough, fair piece. However, sometimes, we're not quite sure why. You managed to eloquently describe what's going on in the mind of a reporter, and the feeling of being torn. Your commentary is incredibly selfless, while at the same so very personal. Thank you for unearthing - and explaining - the much deeper level of reflection that goes on in a reporter's mind before even beginning to present a report on a challenging topic. Tracey Madigan

September 02, 2008 at 01:50 PM
You did a great job! Congratulations and keep up the good work.