Akin deluge highlights media struggles with abortion coverage

A few days ago a religion reporter tweeted at us:

Will @getreligion cover Todd Akin’s #legitimaterape comments & the conservative #Christian reax? Would grab new @Patheos readers, too.

Now, even though we’ve been around for many years, some people are still confused about precisely what we do. We actually have a very limited focus. We don’t “cover” anyone’s comments or the “conservative #Christian” reaction (or anyone else’s reaction) to same. We understand that there are many places on the internet where people may want to discussion politics or religion but we are only interested in media coverage of religion news. And not just general media coverage but only mainstream media coverage. Opinion sites and opinion pieces are just that — disseminators of opinions (for example, you can read a liberal New York Times columnist compare Rep. Paul Ryan and all other pro-lifers to the Taliban, a moderate Washington Post columnist compare Rep. Todd Akin to the Taliban, and a libertarian Washington Examiner columnist interview women who were conceived via rape or who conceived and bore children of rape). We only care about the news reporting.

Now, the comments referenced above are being covered by news pages, too, in a manner we might call “flooding the zone” (one media research outlet notes that already these comments have received four times the coverage of another notable gaffe last week from a much higher-ranking politico). So we have a variety of mainstream media news stories to look at.

The most fruitful avenue for first-day Godbeat reactions to the story were to examine where Akin got the idea that the bodies of women who’ve been raped reject pregnancy. I thought this Tim Townsend story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch was a great read for the origins of those claims (turns out that Akin did get his views from medical doctors, although their views aren’t widely accepted, to put it mildly). Someone should consider doing a story on how natural family planning education, which focuses on how female fertility works and is popular among pro-lifers, is at dramatic odds with these views Akin mentioned.

Most of the Akin stories are related to politics (for example, ABC News’ “Obama Team Continues to Try to Akin-ize GOP Ticket“) or about trying to make political points. In this case, the media and the Obama team seem to be on the same page. Yesterday, for instance, the Washington Post offered coverage of Akin on pages A1, A6, A7, A15, C1, and C5. Far too many mainstream outlets have conflated the particular statement of one denounced Senate candidate with the general policy views of pro-lifers. These are two separate things but you might not know it from the media coverage.

Before I continue, I want to mention that roughly the same percentage of Americans report consistent views at the extreme ends of the abortion debate. In a poll showing that half of Americans self-identify as pro-life (compared to 41 percent who self-identify as pro-choice — a record low), only 25 percent said they thought abortion should be legal in all cases. I believe it was the same poll that showed that 22 percent of people think that abortion should be illegal no matter the circumstances of the pregnancy. But only one of these minority views is treated as a minority view in the media (to find media coverage that treats the other minority view as newsworthy, you generally have to leave the arena of mainstream media).

Take, for example, the media coverage of the two major political parties’ platform disputes. Pro-life Democrats agitated for changes to the Democratic Party platform this year. It’s kind of striking how little they asked for, particularly considering that they were refused. They just wanted recognition that not all Democrats support the official party platform against any limitation on abortion (their statistics indicate that the party platform is out of step with the views of many Democrats). Was there any media coverage of this? I don’t believe so. You can read about it at pro-life sites, but what about mainstream media sites? When it comes to the Republican Party platform debates on abortion, start spilling the ink and pixels.

Or take it down to the micro level. If roughly the same percentage of Americans hold the view that all abortion should be legal (whether the abortion takes place moments before birth or simply because the child is female or has Down syndrome) as hold the view that all abortion should be illegal (even if the child is conceived because of rape), why do the media only ask candidates about one of these positions?

When was the last time you heard a reporter ask a similar question of one of the 246 members of Congress who voted that it should always be legal to terminate an unborn child simply because she is female? Consistent pro-life politicians are routinely asked why women who get pregnant as a result of rape should be forced to continue their pregnancy. Consistent pro-choice politicians are almost never asked why they think it should be legal to kill an unborn child just because she happens to be female. Consistent pro-choice politicians are rarely, if ever, asked why it should be legal to kill an unborn child just because she happens to have Down syndrome. Heck, they’re rarely even asked why it should be legal to kill an unborn child on her way to the birth canal. Why is that? Or check out this analysis of how many reporters have asked President Obama about his record on legislation that would protect infants born after failed abortions (the answer — and the outlet — may surprise you).

It’s not even that these stories are particularly bad so much as they only crop up on one side of the debate. Even as the country becomes more and more pro-life, the long-time media struggles to report this issue well show no signs of abating. It fits with the media’s year of the “war on women” trope we’ve seen so much of, but it’s not good journalism.

  • Harris

    Perhaps the more interesting part of the story is the Akin’s educational choices, including an MDiv from Covenant Seminary (RPC-ES, now PCA) and homeschooling. The impact of Seminary seems to go under-reported, although I have read the snarks that link Covenant to Francis Schaeffer, that bete noir of the left. in John Eligon’s profile in the NYTimes, Akin appears less as an outlier and more of a commonplace Christian conservative, a situation that will may likely be challenging to other Christians in politics.

  • dalea

    The imbalance between liberal and conservative responses to issues is somethng we talk about a lot here. I am beginning to suspect that it would be more fruitful to look at this as a general issue rather than something we treat topic by topic. For me the issue is why are conservative voices so lacking in the public discourse on these topics. We do see the usual suspects, the right wing commentators speaking, but the specialized voices on the right do not appear in the MSM. The left wing, single topic, highly specialized advocates on the left are usually out in force. The question before us is: does the MSM only put forth the left speakers or do the right speakers chose not to appear?

    I am beginning to lean to the latter. In the Prop8 coverage in CA, the press could not find ordinary CA supporters of Prop8 willing to give interviews. The coverage was limited to general conservative commentators and out of state NOM people. On the endless abortion advocacy, I don’t remember ever seeing a ProLife expert like Dr Willkie speaking with the MSM, though I have seen lots of NARAL and NOW experts. Additionally, the left commentators on MSNBC constantly offer time for ProLife and AntiMarriage advocates to respond and, as Rachel and Lawrence remind us, none of them take up the offer.

    • str

      What exactly is an “AntiMarriage” advocate?

      Am I suspecting correctly that this is yet another plunge in discourse civility? But then again, you do use the term “ProLife”?

  • dalea

    I am attempting to imagine an ideological universe in which a National Review statist like Tim Carney is considered a ‘libertarian’. I can not come up with one. Please help me with this.

  • mollie

    dalea,
    I’m sure it’s not the latter. In fact, sometimes I think I could just offer my services to reporters to connect them with hundreds or thousands of people who want to talk on “the other side” of issues.
    Last night my husband and I watched the debate — moderated by Godbeat pro Mark Oppenhemier — between Dan Savage and Brian Brown on same-sex marriage. It was fantastic. I think there should be about a thousand more of these. Just calm, civilized discussions where people really get the time to explain their position and then respond — multiple times. There may be a limit to how many after-dinner chats a mainstream reporter can host. But certainly there are many other ways we can feature healthy and civilized discussions that respectfully engage these hot-button issues.
    Obviously the current mainstream model is failing miserably.

  • sk

    I understand your grouse in the coverage of abortion but in this post beyond the initial paragraph I don’t see the religion angle. Or why its on a site that covers media coverage of religion? It is a hot button issue and has been presented as such in this article and even though there is a religious angle – in terms of the views of religious vs. the areligious, and views across different denominations and sects it is not present in the coverage or the analysis of it in the post.

    • mollie

      sk,
      Well, in this particular case, the religion angles are pretty strong. If you look at the way the media is covering this, you’re seeing that the Godbeat is participating in the deluge of coverage. Some of that is quite good — I pointed out Tim Townsend’s article above, which has strong religion angles. Some of it is not great. We’ll have ample, sigh, opportunities to explore these things in the future, I’m sure.
      But the “should GetReligion cover abortion/same-sex marriage” debate has been litigated for years — even when the religion angles are not front and center — and while I could encourage you to go back and read all the reasons for why this is, I’ll sum it up with the two most important points:
      1) The Godbeat generally covers religion and values. There’s no question that these issues fall into these categories. That’s why we cover them.
      And
      2) If you don’t think that GR should cover these issues, I completely understand that. But at this point, with all the debates we’ve had over this in the past <7 years I’ve been part of this blog, I’d recommend just skipping those posts if you have trouble with them. The editors and most readers agree that GR should cover them. If you don’t, that’s fine, but we’re going to keep covering them (and covering them a lot, if past is prologue).

  • http://catherineguiles.com Cathy G.

    This Wall Street Journal story quotes some Akin backers criticizing the media – I sure would like to know what those “evangelical catchphrases and religious themes aimed at Christian conservatives” in his ads were! http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444358404577604992035831270.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
    Akin’s comments may or may not be common in pro-life circles, but if nothing else, I hope this situation gets people to be more honest.

  • http://www.twitter.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    I don’t always agree with GetReligion’s decision to jump on stories about social issues that don’t directly reference religion, usually to rap knuckles over an affront to conservative Christian values. But in this case, Akin’s significant background and supporters have clearly informed his beliefs and fueled his rhetoric when it comes to abortion.

    Also, that the #legitimaterape reaction coverage began on the blogosphere and op-ed pages before being picked up by major news sections is both typical nowadays and indicative that there was a “religion ghost” here that mainstream media weren’t quite sure how to handle. GetReligion’s mission includes blogging about stories and angles that SHOULD be covered by mainstream media, but are being ignored or buried. Yes?

    It would have said a lot for GetReligion to completely ignore this story, if the blog wants to be considered politically neutral. Meanwhile, not a peep from Christianity Today’s Politics blog until this article today, but it moves on pretty quickly: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/august-web-only/todd-akin-legitimate-rape-and-gospel-healing-for-victims-of.html

    • str

      Looking for a politically neutral blog/paper/press outlet/voice – keep on looking, you will not find one ever!

      • http://www.twitter.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

        I see your point. But there’s a difference between at least aiming for neutrality – including the “Chinese wall” that reputable newspapers put up between their news and opinion sections, having levels of editing and fact-checking to look out for reporter bias – and throwing up our hands entirely.

        In the case of a media criticism blog , there ought to be criticism of all sides, not just harping on how the “liberal media” get things wrong (especially if the fault is essentially not covering social issues to a social conservative’s liking). With Akin, there was a blatant example of a prominent conservative Christian getting something horribly wrong — providing an opportunity to explore what role religion plays in his beliefs, and how the religious and mainstream media seemed uncertain about how to handle this angle. But GetReligion still turned it into two-post screed against the liberal media. It’s disappointing.

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  • DearbornGuy

    Mollie – isn’t it ironic that the very thing that is causing people to become more pro-life is that thing that so many people accuse religions of hating – science! Science is showing the way when it comes to determining that babies are indeed alive and can even feel pain in the womb…. no matter what the pro-choice side says… or doesn’t care about. But you see very little coverage of that kind of story as well in mainstream media…


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