Mainstream media has an abortion problem. It’s not that journalists aren’t keeping track of the legal battles across the country, or not writing about the horror stories coming out of states with abortion bans. They are. But the obsession with ‘both sides’ journalism means that abortion is being presented as far more polarizing than it actually is—and endangering our democracy in the process.
America isn’t split on abortion. Poll after poll shows that voters want abortion to be legal, and have for decades. But for just as long, journalism favoring ‘balance’ over truth has painted the issue as divisive instead of clearcut, and given equal weight to those who oppose abortion even as their position became more and more out-of-step with that of most Americans. (A 2020 study by Global Strategy Group and NARAL Pro-Choice America, for example, found that only 9% of articles about abortion mentioned that most Americans support Roe.)
This isn’t just about accuracy. By ignoring how popular abortion rights really are, mainstream publications are obscuring what might be most important political story of our time: That one political party is quashing a fundamental right despite the wishes of most Americans, and imposing restrictions that voters overwhelmingly don’t want.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe, that failure to correctly frame abortion as a popular right being destroyed by a powerful few is especially alarming.
Just last week, The Washington Post published a splashy interactive about how college students are feeling post-Roe—framing it as if students were evenly split on abortion:
“For some, the changes are joyful, a protection of human life. For others, they are terrifying, pushing them to consider scenarios that would have been unthinkable just months ago...”
In fact, young people are the most pro-choice demographic in the country: Pew reports that nearly 75% of adults under 30 believe abortion should be legal in most or all circumstances, and a 2019 survey showed almost 80% of college students want abortion to be legal. A NBC poll offered this dramatic statistic: 1 in 3 students would change schools if they were in an anti-choice state.
These are overwhelming numbers, yet there was no mention of young people’s staggering support of abortion rights—an omission that would be considered journalistic malpractice if it was about any other issue.
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The media’s shoddy standards on abortion go beyond the issue’s popularity. Research shows that publications often use anti-abortion rhetoric and messaging without any context—like covering ‘heartbeat’ bills without mentioning that cardiac activity isn’t possible so early in pregnancy, or citing medical facts as pro-choice ‘beliefs’ rather than scientific reality. Another study found that language “personifying the fetus” appeared more often than women’s abortion stories, which were only present in 4% of articles. In other words, the media is more likely to humanize fetuses than women.
Journalists also reinforce dangerous myths: A 2017 report found that half of the news articles they examined contained stigmatizing language about abortion; 15% used language claiming abortion is a dangerous procedure despite facts showing just the opposite; and 15% included statements suggesting abortion providers were murderers or just trying to make money. (It’s not a coincidence that when a shooter killed three people at a Colorado Planned Parenthood that he shouted out anti-abortion rhetoric pushed by conservative media.)
Add all of this up and what we’re left with is a national conversation on abortion that’s dangerous, incoherent and wildly divorced from reality. All because mainstream publications believe that in order to be unbiased, they need to give equal space and credibility to absolute bullshit. Consider that it was just in 2018 when The Atlantic hired a writer who argued women who have abortions should be executed by hanging—with the editor-in-chief defending the decision as wanting a writer who was “ideologically interesting.”
This can’t continue. We can’t let publications spread misinformation and give a platform to dangerous extremists in the name of hearing everyone out. Not when doing so puts the lives of doctors, clinic workers, and women at risk.
We can’t have journalists dance around the fact that abortion bans are being enacted despite what voters want, enabling Republicans in the process. (After all, it’s a lot less controversial to strip away a long-standing right if you can convince the public that half of the country agrees with you.)
Mainstream journalists need to educate themselves on abortion—the science behind it, the political polling on it, the experiences of patients, and the reality of how it shapes American life. Anyone reporting on abortion needs to understand the issue beyond simple talking points. Most of all, publications need to stop lazily citing ‘both sides’ on abortion as if they are equally accurate.
Because when the media cares more about the appearance of objectivity than the truth, they are taking a side—one that hurts us all.
It’s been like this since Phyllis Schafley fought the Equal Rights Amendment by saying we will have unisex bathrooms. Back then it was the ‘Fairness Doctrine’ the men would laugh at the women cat fighting. Here we are now. At least most men are now on our side!