MAJOR issues like Vietnam and the civil rights movement have tested the objectivity of journalists over the years, and now the issue that is challenging journalistic ethics is abortion. Eyebrows were raised when a number of reporters and editors from the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other newspapers marched in a pro-abortion demonstration in Washington last year.
After the march, top Washington Post editors rebuked their participating staffers, saying: ``It is unprofessional for you to take part in political demonstrations, no matter on which side or how seemingly worthy the cause.'' Post managing editor Leonard Downie Jr. recommended that reporters not have opinions on issues like abortion.
To suggest that they not have opinions may be going too far. Reporters would be pretty pale people if they did not develop viewpoints about the great issues they cover. But those viewpoints should remain personal and private. A reporter should not be perceived by his or her readers to be partisan.
Public identification with one side or another - as in marching in a demonstration - raises reasonable doubts in a reader's mind about that reporter's objectivity when the time comes to write about the issue.
The problem of covering the abortion debate fairly is compounded by the fact there is much more pro-abortion sentiment abroad in American newsrooms than there is anti-abortion feeling.
After eight months of research, the Center for Media and Public Affairs concluded that the three network news shows and the Washington Post and New York Times quoted nearly twice as many pro-abortion sources as anti. In stories filed by women reporters on the two newspapers, the pro-abortion advantage was three to one. A network news official told U.S. News and World Report: ``The problem, pure and simple, is that the media's loaded with women who are strongly pro-choice.''
The Washington Post's own ombudsman, Richard Harwood, concluded that his paper's ``shabby'' coverage of a Washington anti-abortion rally in April ``left a blot on the paper's professional reputation.'' Only two short reports appeared, neither on page one, although 200,000 people took part. By contrast, a pro-abortion rally attended by 125,000 last year got a dozen stories in the Washington Post and was the lead story on page one.
If journalists in general seem to personally favor abortion, the involvement is not all one-sided.
Two editor-reporters on a small daily in Fairfield, Iowa, were involved in forming an anti-abortion group. They were warned by the newspaper's management that the organizing activity was a professional conflict of interest. When the newspaper received a press release announcing the two reporters had been elected officers of the anti-abortion group, it fired them.
Editors at the Milwaukee Journal fired a clerk-typist on their metro desk after they found her demonstrating outside a downtown abortion clinic.
The next question for media watchdogs is whether newsroom managers act more punitively against anti-abortionists on their staffs then they do against pro-abortionists.
At the Louisville Courier-Journal a copy editor opposed to abortion was involved in ``sidewalk counseling'' outside a downtown abortion clinic, trying to persuade women to seek alternatives. His newspaper objected, but agreed to let him continue counseling inside a ``pregnancy center,'' on condition his role would be kept private and not incite public controversy.
Thus news organizations are handling in different ways - and sometimes with anguish - the balancing of a reporter's civil liberties against the news organization's pressing need to project to its readers an image of fairness and objectivity.
With the press facing increasing reader skepticism, and with abortion rousing strong emotions inside and outside the newsroom, it is a dilemma that will only become sharper.