Akin deluge highlights media struggles with abortion coverage

Akin deluge highlights media struggles with abortion coverage August 23, 2012

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.

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