Few subjects elicit as many brazen lies as the anti-abortion movement. So why are journalists so uncomfortable with calling them out?
In a first-of-its-kind study published in August in the medical journal Contraception, university researchers in California interviewed journalists who cover abortion about what it’s like to cover abortion, finding—unsurprisingly—that these journalists encounter a lot of harassment. But perhaps to the shock and dismay of the “fake news” crowd, the researchers also found that reporters who cover abortion—even those who identify as feminist or progressive or advocacy journalists—strive for fairness and accuracy in their reporting. What a buzzkill.
I’m pleased to be one of the buzzkillers. Over the last decade or so, I’ve covered abortion politics for Rewire, the Texas Observer, Rolling Stone, and many other publications. In particular, the subject became an accidental specialty of mine after Wendy Davis’s famous 13-hour filibuster at the Texas capitol in 2013. I was interviewed along with 30 other reporters recruited from feminist and progressive media listservs for the study, which was conducted by folks at the Universities of California at Berkeley and San Francisco, along with the Sea Change Program. Researchers identified several major themes that emerged from the open-ended interviews, including the journalists’ struggles to find the balance between accuracy and what many felt was an obligation to make an extra effort to project neutrality when covering abortion.
The conflict between accuracy and neutrality is one that all journalists who cover controversial issues face—or should, at least, if they’re doing the job right. But while many issues stir up controversy, few feature interest groups with as tenuous a grasp on reality, and as enthusiastic a tendency to lie and mislead, as those in the anti-abortion movement.
In fact, it wasn’t until Donald Trump began occupying the White House that, at least in my professional lifetime, I’d seen the kind of repeated, brazen lying on a national stage that those of us who cover abortion rights have long seen at the local and state levels. Most journalists know what it’s like to be lied to, to have the truth twisted and politicized, and to have interested parties seek to sway a story in their favor. But when Sean Spicer lied to America’s collective face about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, it called to my mind the dozens (maybe even hundreds) of conversations I’ve had over the years with anti-abortion advocates, lawmakers, and lobbyists who’ve tried to convince me, and my readers, that abortion causes breast cancer, or that Planned Parenthood does a robust underground trade in “baby parts,” or that people who end their pregnancies will be driven insane by the aftermath.
The funny thing about how controversial abortion has become in our national conversation is how non-controversial abortion actually is, not just in terms of medical and social science, but in the lives of people who choose to have abortions and in the eyes of the American public. There is no debate among credible, disinterested medical professionals about whether abortion causes breast cancer, or whether people who have abortions suffer long-term psychological trauma. To the contrary: Studies have found no link between abortion and breast cancer, and found that people who choose abortion mostly feel relief, not regret, while more than 70 percent of voters recently said that they support legal abortion rights. And when it comes to the “baby parts” thing, the only folks who have been charged with wrongdoing are the anti-abortion activists who fabricated the nonexistent evidence for their outrageous claims.
I could go on. The country’s leading group of obstetricians and gynecologists, for example, has publicly opposed recent regulations on abortion care, denouncing anti-abortion lawmakers’ claims that mandated hospital admitting privileges, or requiring providers operate in hospital-like facilities, are necessary to protect “health and safety” by countering that these measures are not only not actually necessary for the health and safety of abortion patients, but actively dangerous to them.
Abortion is not controversial in any real sense; its tendentiousness arises from a rhetorical and semantic controversy manufactured by religious extremists and misogynists who trade in stigma and shame. This puts journalists (and their editors) who aren’t prepared to stand up to bald-faced liars in the position of whiffing the story every time, hoping to avoid the accusations of bias they would undoubtedly endure if they actually refused to entertain the overripe prevarications of anti-abortion lobbyists and political groups.
Of course political efforts to restrict reproductive freedom should be covered, and that will require quoting some of these bizarre and ridiculous claims about baby parts and breast cancer, but reporters who cover abortion must keep two things in mind when we sit down to write each and every story: The best information we have from credible medical sources, and what interest groups have to say about it.
Because for all our self-righteous jibber-jabber about the pursuit of truth and dedication to accuracy, journalists are often pretty skitzy about calling a lie a lie, or calling a liar a liar, even when the evidence is right there, even when we know better, even when just one or two references to a peer-reviewed study or expert comment would expose the tomfoolery. Instead, we resort to quoting opposite sides of a controversial topic in the service of producing the kind of “both sides” reporting that describes what people said, but not what’s actually at stake, lest someone from either side cry foul. This inevitably devolves, in the world of abortion coverage, into an endless quote cycle that regurgitates the same ideas and talking points from the same interest groups, without ever getting at the heart of what abortion actually means to the people who choose it, to the people who provide it, and even to those who oppose it.
We know that a lack of access to abortion care disproportionately harms low-income families and people of color, and publications that privilege “both sides”-style reporting that fails to hold the anti-abortion movement accountable for open falsehoods and lies only perpetuate a dangerous status quo. That’s not journalism; it’s transcription.
The Contraception study’s researchers offer a partial solution to this problem, one that would go a long way to alleviate those accuracy-versus-neutrality quandaries that, if they frustrate advocacy reporters like me, must have an even bigger effect on mainstream journalists’ work. The solution: Making academics, providers and patients more accessible to reporters in order to break the curse of “both sides.” It’s much, much easier said than done, thanks to the stigma and shame surrounding abortion care in general. But it echoes what we already know about abortion storytelling on an interpersonal level: That it’s a necessary part of generating empathy for people who have abortions and developing broad support for abortion rights. The truth will absolutely set us free—but only if we can find a way to hear it over the soundbites.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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