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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 12:00 PM ET, 09/16/2011

NPR and abortion: No style points

Sorry, NPR, but your style guide stinks. At least when it comes to its abortion entry, that is.

That entry dove into the news stream yesterday, courtesy of NPR Ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos. The subject of Schumacher-Matos’s ombudsing was a story by NPR Justice Department reporter Carrie Johnson. On Sept. 1, Johnson did a story about how the Obama administration has taken a “more aggressive approach against people who block access to abortion clinics, using a 1994 law to bring cases in greater numbers than its predecessor.”

Violation!!!!

That language, according to Schumacher-Matos, runs afoul of NPR style rules. From the ombo’s column on the matter:

“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.”

So Johnson’s wording should have read as follows:

The Obama Justice Department has been taking a more aggressive approach against people who block access to health clinics that provide abortions, using a 1994 law to bring cases in greater numbers than its predecessor.

There are other spots in Johnson’s story that spurn the style guide. Let’s go ahead and make those edits as well.

Original version:

Troy Newman couldn’t disagree more. Newman leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at abortion clinics across the country.

NPR style guide-compliant version

Troy Newman couldn’t disagree more. Newman leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at medical clinics that provide abortions across the country.

Original version:

A small-scale version of this conflict is on display nearly every day between protesters and escorts at abortion clinics.

NPR style guide-compliant version:

A small-scale version of this conflict is on display nearly every day between protesters and escorts at health clinics that provide abortions.

Quite an upgrade, huh? Nothing like some verbiage mixed in with sound and straightforward news writing.

Who knows what constituency the NPR style guiders were trying to please with this rule. Copy editors? Abortion-rights advocates?

Whatever the case, a doctorate in linguistics isn’t required to determine that there’s no difference between “abortion clinic” and “health clinic that provides abortions.” To anyone tuning into “Morning Edition,” they are the same thing.

Now, if NPR really wants to emphasize that these places provide services other than abortions, then further verbal procedures are required. As follows:

Instead of:

Troy Newman couldn’t disagree more. Newman leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at abortion clinics across the country.

NPR would have to insist on this wording:

Troy Newman couldn’t disagree more. Newman leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at health clinics that provide abortions and other services and procedures across the country.

Too unwieldy? I agree. Perhaps Old Man Hyphen can help. He routinely furnishes compound adjectives that get us out of tough copy-editing binds. Let’s see what he can do for us:

Troy Newman couldn’t disagree more. Newman leads Operation Rescue, a group that protests at various-medical-services-providing abortion clinics across the country.

Looks like Old Man Hyphen collapsed in a plume of dust and brittle bones there.

There’s nothing evil about “abortion clinic,” unless, of course, you believe there is. But as journalistic shorthand for a place that provides abortions as well as many other services and procedures, it works just fine. There’s a reason why the term pops up in other publications that care tremendously about the power of language: It’s simple, accurate and neutral.

By  |  12:00 PM ET, 09/16/2011

 
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