What a flubbed abortion-access story can teach us about the "fake news" era.
Monday afternoon, NPR ran an “All Things Considered” piece about crisis pregnancy centers who say their clients rely on Medicaid for prenatal and birth care. The piece’s premise was thin to begin with, but the ensuing Twitter conversation I had with the reporter, Sarah McCammon, illuminated an important lesson about media in the “fake news” era.
Before we get to all that, let’s talk about the story itself: Most egregious was McCammon’s credulous characterization of crisis pregnancy centers, which often deceive, shame and coerce women out of choosing abortion care by lying to them about connections between abortion and breast cancer (there is none) and abortion and mental illness (there is none). That’s not my opinion; it’s backed by findings from public health research published in peer-reviewed journals.
In the piece, McCammon instead describes crisis pregnancy centers as places “where women are counseled against abortion.” This is an achievement in understatement. She might as well describe Rick Astley as a man who “counsels against” giving you up or letting you down.
I don’t expect NPR to burst forth from my speakers with a long screed about how crisis pregnancy centers, which broadly oppose the use of contraception, deliberately mislead patients in an effort to coerce them into carrying their pregnancies to term, although there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that that is their modus operandi. (California, for example, has statewide regulations requiring CPC’s to disclose the limited extent of the services they provide.) I might like to hear that kind of evidence-based reporting from a mainstream news source like NPR, but I’m also realistic.
What I do expect is for NPR to give listeners enough context to draw informed conclusions about the subject matter. Nowhere in the piece does McCammon hint at the controversial space that crisis pregnancy centers occupy in the public health landscape; that their tactics are widely condemned by reproductive health professionals is never once mentioned. CPCs don’t employ medical staff and aren’t themselves Medicaid providers, but the story never goes there. McCammon even fails entirely to note that the vast majority of crisis pregnancy centers are religiously affiliated or even expressly Christian organizations, an exclusion that borders on journalistic negligence—not because there’s anything wrong with religious organizations, but because the spiritual beliefs of CPC staffers and backers are such an essential element of why crisis pregnancy centers do what they do.
In a lengthy Twitter exchange, I asked McCammon about these omissions; she told me she felt the “counseled” line was a sufficient description of what crisis pregnancy centers do, and said it wasn’t her job to criticize crisis pregnancy centers. On the latter point, I agree. However, I do suspect that the public critics of crisis pregnancy centers over at NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU all have phones and emails and would be more than happy to have issued NPR a quick quote about how they view the operations. A counter-quote from an opposing org to round out a controversial subject isn’t bonus content; it’s the heart of a fully reported story, and its absence is especially notable, since McCammon uses anti-abortion groups’ efforts to block public funding for Planned Parenthood as a core element of her framing for the piece.
I believe McCammon when she told me that this story reads the way it does because she doesn’t “take sides”—at least, I believe that she believes she didn’t take sides. But calling up NARAL for a sentence or two about their lobbying efforts against crisis pregnancy centers wouldn’t make McCammon herself a critic of these groups. It would make her a reporter who did her job. She didn’t avoid bias by omitting sources critical of crisis pregnancy centers, she engendered it. She produced a story that fails to provide key context for readers and listeners and, as a result, presents her audience with an outrageously incomplete understanding of the issue.
But who cares, right? It’s just one story out of thousands! Why drag this one? Because it’s illustrative of something all consumers of mainstream news these days need to be on the lookout for: What isn’t there, and why.
There are a few different kinds of objectivity efforts in mainstream journalism that produce skewed, rather than impartial, work by privileging certain sources, warping the importance of others, or ignoring the existence of some altogether. There’s the “gotta hear both sides” approach, which fills out a story about a controversial subject with opposing views, no matter how crackpot. (See: pieces about global warming that include a quote from a climate-change denier, legitimizing a perspective that has no basis in reality.) Then there’s the “he said, she claimed” approach, which presumes that official narratives are to be believed over the lived experiences of critics. (See: stories about police violence that present an officer’s narrative as fact to be disputed rather than as subjective a human experience as any other.)
And then there’s this piece, which falls into what I think of as the “silent source” fallacy: It asks readers to fill in the blanks, if they can, rather than fully reporting the extent to which a subject or policy is in dispute. I suspect that reporters do this in an effort to deflect accusations of liberal media bias; I don’t know if that’s what happened on this piece. (See: Articles about sports leagues’ charitable work against domestic violence that omit data about the athletes who are accused of committing it.)
In inviting readers to substitute their own knowledge for old-fashioned reporting, “silent source” stories let reporters off the hook on the heavy lifting of contextualizing controversy. In this case, because readers are less likely to be familiar with the work (possibly even with the existence) of CPCs than they are, say, Planned Parenthood, the onus on the reporter to paint a full picture of these organizations’ situation within the public health-care landscape is proportionally greater. That didn’t happen here, and it’s a shame.
In fact, McCammon told me on Twitter that her story was expressly not to be read as an exploration of the conservative politics of crisis pregnancy centers existing in tension with their clients’ reliance on public-health funding (not a bad premise, if you ask me), but rather to answer this question: “Do people realize how heavily CPCs rely on Medicaid to provide birth care for their clients?”
This begs the question. Most people don’t know about CPCs, period. To ask whether they know of a connection between CPCs and Medicaid, and attempt to answer it without talking in any detail whatsoever about the ideological extremism of the centers themselves, is a massive leap.
But sure, inasmuch as Medicaid allows millions of people to have healthy pregnancies, it is technically true that crisis pregnancy centers “rely” on Medicaid, since their clients are pregnant people. We might as well say that Walmart relies on Medicaid because shoppers buy formula and bibs. But Medicaid is not, to extend McCammon’s own metaphor, “a tool” in the well-outfitted toolbox of a crisis pregnancy center. Better to flip it: In the well-outfitted toolbox of Medicaid, a crisis pregnancy center is one of those IKEA assembly wrenches that breaks mid-Malm.
That many people—among them respected medical professionals—are deeply skeptical of crisis pregnancy centers for the reasons stated above is easy context McCammon could have provided in a couple of quotes, without herself appearing anything other than objective. But she didn’t because she wanted to appear impartial. Apropos of nothing, in a context-free world where nothing has anything to do with anything else, readers are expected to find it interesting that CPC clients use Medicaid. In actuality, it’s particularly interesting that CPC clients use Medicaid precisely because conservative, Republican-aligned CPCs broadly oppose government programs like Medicaid.
I know I promised you I’d talk about “fake news,” so here it is. People who don’t do journalism—among them, the current occupier of the White House—are quick to believe that entire news media outlets, many of which employ hundreds or even thousands of people, are monolithic entities relentlessly pursuing and promoting a united left- or right-leaning political agenda. When you don’t really understand how journalism gets done, it’s tempting to think that a story like this one, devoid of context practically to the point of being erroneous, is indicative of some broader agenda.
But we see from McCammon’s own comments that it was actually a reporter’s pursuit of balance that resulted in the work of journalism’s deep imbalance. There’s no Wizard of Oz behind the curtain; I seriously doubt that somewhere up the editorial chain, NPR’s own Dr. Evil is orchestrating an elaborate anti-abortion agenda. What’s more likely is that journalists are human, and humans make mistakes, and they fail to ask the right questions, or they fear asking the wrong ones, and so they err on the side of caution, which does a disservice to readers but at least it means the writer has a job tomorrow.
Which is why it is essential that news consumers read, listen and watch widely, even—maybe especially—paying attention to outlets we perceive as being hostile to our worldview. It’s not possible for one reporter, or even one publication, to provide the full context of every story, and oftentimes, as we see in this case, they’ll actively eschew it in the pursuit, however unsuccessful, of ethical reporting. If a news story interests you, don’t rely on one source to tell you everything you need to know. That’s a surefire way to make sure that you’ll give up—after you’re let down.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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