As a recent Vox poll found, Americans know very little about abortion. Most people, for instance, think that abortion is both more dangerous and rarer than it really is.
And a new study from Media Matters, a progressive media watchdog, shows one possible explanation for this: In the last year, cable news featured more inaccurate statements about abortion than accurate ones. It also featured more speakers who oppose abortion than who support it, or who consistently made anti-abortion versus pro-choice statements.
Fox News, unsurprisingly, had the most dramatically skewed ideological ratios against abortion — both in terms of anti-abortion speakers and abortion misinformation. But this imbalance was also true on CNN. Only MSNBC featured more pro-choice speakers than abortion opponents, or more accurate than inaccurate statements about abortion.
And across the three major cable news networks, most of the guests invited to talk about abortion, as well as the hosts and correspondents who talked about abortion, were men.
Rachel Larris and Sharon Kann gathered this data for Media Matters by analyzing 14 months of evening and primetime news programs on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC from January 1, 2015, to March 6, 2016. They found 688 segments with 1,544 appearances by 432 individuals that featured a substantial discussion of abortion, or of groups that support or oppose reproductive rights.
Then they coded whether the speakers in the segments publicly identified as "pro-choice" or "anti-choice," and whether their statements about abortion could be classified as "pro-choice" or "anti-choice."
The study used four major abortion news topics to measure a statement's ideology and accuracy
To determine whether a guest's statements favored or opposed abortion, Larris and Kann looked at what the guest had to say about the four "types of misinformation" about abortion that were most commonly heard during the study period:
- Government funds given to Planned Parenthood through Medicaid are illegally used to pay for abortions. (This would indeed be illegal under the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from paying for abortions in most circumstances. There is no evidence that Planned Parenthood has violated the law in this way, but one common Republican talking point lately is that the organization should be defunded because money is fungible, and funding contraception or health care at Planned Parenthood still supports abortion by extension.)
- Birth control acts as an abortifacient. (It doesn't, and that includes emergency contraception. This idea often comes up during discussions of the Obama administration's birth control benefit, and the various legal challenges against it.)
- Planned Parenthood “harvests” or “sells” or is “profiting” from fetal tissue. (Multiple investigations have refuted this idea, which comes from videos released last summer by the Center for Medical Progress.)
- The Center for Medical Progress’ work or videos are “journalism” or fair depictions. (Those videos were so misleadingly edited that some sequences actually say the exact opposite of what Planned Parenthood employees told David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress in their secretly recorded conversations — even going by his own "full transcripts" of the "unedited videos," which also turned out to be edited and incomplete.)
If something a guest said aligned with one of these four statements, that guest's comment was coded as "anti-choice." If it contradicted them, the comment was coded as "pro-choice."
The most important issues to the pro-choice community got short shrift in news coverage
The Media Matters study suggests that pro-choice views are badly represented on non-MSNBC cable news shows.
But that's not the only problem for reproductive rights advocates the study revealed. Pro-choice issues got even less coverage than pro-choice opinions. Media Matters found just eight news segments that discussed the economic hardship of getting an abortion. And even though violence against abortion providers skyrocketed in 2015 as a whole, there was very little discussion of abortion clinic violence other than news about the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood shooting in November.
Pro-choice and pro-life advocates don't just have different opinions about issues like the morality of abortion, or whether Planned Parenthood should be publicly funded. They also have different opinions about which issues and stories are most important to talk about when it comes to reproductive rights.
For instance: Is it more important to discuss debunked claims about Planned Parenthood breaking the law, or talk about why overheated anti-abortion rhetoric leads directly to violence against abortion providers? Is it more useful to discuss banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, or talk about why laws like the Hyde Amendment make it so difficult for low-income women to afford abortions that they often can't get one until the second trimester?
CMP's deceptive Planned Parenthood videos dominated the national conversation about abortion for months. That also meant that pro-choice advocates, when they got a chance to speak, had to have a lot more conversations about propaganda than about the issues they find most important.