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Speaking for the Public: How the Media Constructed Controversy and Consensus About Abortion from 1972 through 1994


How and when do journalists define the boundaries of acceptable controversy? And how do they do so while appearing to remain objective? To answer these questions, this research analyzes mainstream newspaper coverage of the American abortion debate from 1972 through 1994. Using qualitative content analyses and quantitative regression analyses, I explore how journalists rhetorically position themselves and other actors in news stories. More specifically, I analyze the use of analytic and outraged rhetoric in stories about the abortion controversy. I identify the actors who are ascribed analytic rhetoric or outrage rhetoric, as well as when journalists themselves use such rhetoric. I compare these uses across article characteristics and political contexts, as well as over time.

Findings show that to perform their objectivity, journalists adopt one of two roles: either that of neutral observer or that of guardian of consensus. Scholars have studied the first role but not the second. Both of these journalistic performances violate commitments to objectivity by implying certain conflicts and contenders are legitimate and others are beyond the pale of political acceptability. By serving as neutral observers and by serving as guardians of consensus journalists enact their commitment to objectivity not by being impartial but by being partial (to their understanding of shared public values). Ironically, however, when adhering to the norms of the guardianship of consensus, journalists undermine the paradigms of “objective journalism” (i.e., facticity, independence, balance) and a democratic public sphere (i.e., civil, representative or inclusive, and dialogic). In addition to this consequence, these performances also treat different groups of actors as either co-representatives of the public interest or as illegitimate challengers to those interests.

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