Media coverage of Roe at 40

Media coverage of Roe at 40 January 24, 2013 could write several volumes under this headline, but we’ll just look at a few items to come out in recent days. Let’s start with this from NBC:

As the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision takes place on Tuesday, a majority of Americans – for the first time – believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

What’s more, seven in 10 respondents oppose Roe v. Wade being overturned, which is the highest percentage on this question since 1989.

Whenever reading stories about polls, check the underlying data. Check the questions.

It’s worth noting that the results of this poll are different from the results of other major polling. Anyway, the poll begins by asking whether respondents approve or disapprove of Roe. Only 39 percent say they approve and 41 percent say they don’t know enough about Roe to have an opinion. The pollsters then completely misrepresent Roe, claiming it only legalizes abortion in the first three months of pregnancy. While pro-lifers might wish it were otherwise, there is far more support for the right to end the lives of unborn children in the first trimester than in the remainder of a pregnancy. Roe and its companion court decisions do not just legalize abortion in the first trimester. Far, far from it.

Anyway, the pollsters then ask respondents if they want not to overturn Roe but “completely” overturn it. Why that bizarre qualifier was added to the question is beyond me, but it’s a good polling trick to suppress one particular response.

So if you misrepresent what abortion law is and then lead people in a particular direction in your answer, you might get the result you’re going for.

Ramesh Ponnuru notes that Washington Post reporter took this information — and another poll — and advised that Republicans “need to stop talking about abortion. Immediately.”

The Washington Post asserts:

The trend line is clear, and Americans are becoming more accepting of abortion rights.

Ponnuru responds that this “thesis depends entirely on an overreaction to a few bits of poll data. A fuller look at the evidence does not bear it out.”The evidence for the Post‘s claim is the NBC poll above and a Pew poll. Ponnuru:

Actually, Pew did not find that support for Roe has been increasing. It found less support for Roe than it did in 2005, which appears to be the last time it asked the question. The ABC/Washington Post poll also found declining support for Roe between 2005 and 2010.

There is much more from Ponnuru but the bottom line is that you would be wise to be at least skeptical of this report.

For a broader and more polemical take on this, I’d recommend reading Tim Carney’s look at media treatment of abortion, Roe and Planned Parenthood. He begins by noting NBC’s misrepresentation of what Roe accomplished, calling it a fitting treatment for its 40th anniversary. He catalogues something you are not likely to even get a hint of from most mainstream media treatment — how “[l]egions of pro-choice judges and legal scholars have admitted that Roe was bad jurisprudence.” He goes on to note that “Planned Parenthood is an abortion business and an abortion lobby” but that its allies in the media obscure this.

He pulls few punches in showing that Planned Parenthood, contrary to media suggestions, doesn’t offer mammograms, offers almost no prenatal care and almost never refers pregnant women for adoption. “If you are pregnant, almost the only service Planned Parenthood provides you involves forceps or a scalpel.” This is true, of course, but it’s not a truth you will learn from most media presentations. Carney is one of the very few reporters covering crony capitalism and how it affects public policy. He talks about how Obamacare authors lobby for Planned Parenthood.

The most important media issue is how we present the terms of the debate. I noted earlier this year that almost all discussion of pro-life work is put in terms of restriction rather than protection. The opposite is true for the pro-choice efforts. If you work to protect unborn life, the media will almost always characterize it as against something. Carney notes a related phenomenon:

In the context of abortion, media and politicians will talk about “terminating pregnancies” and speak as if the only issue at stake is a woman’s body. The premise here is that there is no second person involved.

But we know that there is a second person. Look online at the cutting-edge ultrasounds, and you can see a face, and arms, and legs and a beating heart in the first trimester. That’s a baby.

Now, the fact is that we actually have seen some good coverage of the pro-life movement 40 years after Roe. I hope to highlight some of it. But a year after I witnessed the unabashed media defense of Planned Parenthood against a breast cancer charity that attempted to extricate itself from the abortion business, my eyes have been opened.

I know that if a fringe pro-life group put out something even 1/100th as tone deaf as this ad we saw this week from a major pro-choice group, we would have seen critical coverage. I know that if a staff writer at a popular publication argued that abortion doctors’ lives are lives worth ending, we’d see quite a bit of coverage. Some groups getting pepper sprayed get noticed on all three major networks and others don’t, you know? It’s just par for the course.

But, again, there is good journalism being done, too. Here are the most recent examples that come to mind of quality reportage, fresh angles or coverage of things we’re used to seeing buried. It is easy to focus on either the good or the bad. The whole picture is more complicated and, I hope, getting better. I hope there’s more of a market for good and balanced reporting such as the Washington Post and RNS examples in this paragraph, and less for the unbridled advocacy of an Andrea Mitchell.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    You have got to be kidding. That video ad cheering the 4oth Anniversary of Roe has got to be a joke. On the other hand it does accurately show what kind of narcissistic, self-centered people are the most likely to be strong supporters of abortion-0n-demand.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Unfortunately, Deacon, it’s no joke. It was put up by a group that’s demanding a bill of rights on reproductive health care.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Given that the March for Life is being held on a Friday this year and with much larger numbers expected because of the anniversary, it will be interesting to see how it is covered. I came across an interesting quote from a Pittsburgh Catholic article ( from 10 years ago. It was a profile of a woman named Helen Cindrich who led a contingent from Steel City to D.C. for the first March in 1974. Here’s what she had to say:

    “Nellie Gray called a rally on the front steps of this magnificent monument,” she said. “It was an hour of inspiration, dedication and 20,000 people pledging their lives to regaining the sanctity of human life.
    “Surely, the world was watching as we walked four abreast to form a circle of humanity around this symbol of our great nation. As we rounded the final corner to return to the marble steps, the other end of our throng was just beginning their circuit.
    “Only when we got home that night did we realize that the American media and their most trusted fatherly icon, Walter Cronkite, had totally ignored us. That bitter lesson has been learned by all who marched for the past 30 years.”

    Will it be learned again this year?

  • Bain Wellington

    The point about Roe-v-Wade, of course, is that it took away from the people the right (through state legislatures) to determine by democratic process the legality of abortion, and made it essentially a technocratic decision reserved to the medical profession at every stage from conception to fetal-viability and beyond.

    On that basis, and looking at the responses to Q32, the 31% who want abortion to be “always legal” ought to be as disaffected with Roe-v-Wade as the 44% who want abortion to be illegal (with or without exceptions).

    Ignoring the 2% who “don’t know”, that leaves the 23% who want it legal “most of the time” (whatever that means) who constitute the only logical reservoir of support for Roe-v-Wade.

    As for the slanted way in which Roe-v-Wade is encapsulated for the purposes of Q21, it seems clear that most of the 41% who confessed (in answer to Q20) that they did not know enough to express an opinion received sufficient illumination (from the preamble to Q21) to discover that they did NOT want Roe-v-Wade overturned.

    Thus, the 18% who originally said they disapproved of the decision converted into 24% who wanted it overturned (but this is within the 3% margin of error on either side), whereas the 39% who originally said they approved were boosted up to the 70% who did NOT want it overturned. At a minimum, 25% of the total sample went from no-nothing to supporting Roe-v-Wade on the basis of a 10 second seminar on Roe-v-Wade by way of a preamble to a follow-up question.

    Might these quick learners have been the 30% of respondents were contacted by cell phone only ?

    My standing complaint with media reportage of surveys is that the story rarely mentions the size of the sample or (what follows from sample size, among other factors) the margin of error. In the WaPo piece you link, it is simply false to cite the NBC/WSJ poll as showing that “fully 7 in 10 Americans say …”.

    • Bain Wellington

      Opp! Whew! It looks a lot more succinct in the combox than it does when posted. Apologies.

      Also, “know-nothing” (not “no-nothing”) in the ante-penultimate para.

  • FW Ken

    The NBC broadcast on the anniversary seemed also painfully “balanced”, and I got to wondering if they were hiding a much greater pro-life presence, so I googled “number of protesters on roe anniversary”. From the hits, it seems like the two sides were fairly equal, not to mention small – in the dozens.

    However I got this Reuters article that I liked:

    Good quotes, and a perspective beyond Washington.

    Mollie, I checked your links and didn’t see this article. Apologies if you had already noted it.