How Journalists Cover Abortion Matters. Here’s Why.

Supermajority Education Fund

June 30, 2020

On June 29, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, struck down a Louisiana law that required doctors who provide abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. This ruling was a huge win for abortion rights advocates who knew that this case could have been a serious threat to Roe v. Wade. 

But access to abortion is still under siege in America. There are still several cases that could also easily threaten Roe if considered by the Supreme Court. In 2019, 12 states passed 25 different abortion bans, all varying in severity, per the Guttmacher Institute. While many advocates attribute the public sentiment supporting these attacks to politicians alone, a recent report from NARAL Pro-Choice America found that journalists and the media also play a critical role in the national and political discourse around abortion. The report found that while abortion is a medical procedure, it is most often written about within a political context. Seventy-seven percent of the articles about abortion studied were written by a political, breaking news, or general assignment reporter—not a health reporter. 

The report mentions that 17 percent of the articles characterize abortion as “divisive,” controversial,” or something similar. Sixty-five percent of the articles quoted a politician, 13.5 percent quoted a physician, and 11 percent referenced medical research. The publications analyzed included The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, CNN Politics, NBC News, Politico, The Los Angeles Times, The Houston Chronicle, and the posts examined were written in the time frame of January 1, 2019 through June 30, 2019. 

“Because political reporters often cover abortion, the perspectives that are most often included in their coverage are those of politicians—not those most impacted by abortion: doctors and pregnant people,” Kristin Ford, National Communications Director at NARAL told Supermajority News. “We encourage all reporters covering abortion to contextualize the language they use and avoid using inflammatory language designed by the anti-choice movement to achieve their aims, center the perspectives of those with the most at stake, and make clear that reproductive freedom is widely supported.”

As states continue to push through restrictive abortion legislation, its residents might rely even more on comprehensive reporting. This thoughtful coverage might be especially necessary during a pandemic when legislators continue to roll back abortion access. After COVID-19 arrived in the U.S. in March of 2020, several states added abortion to the list of non-essential procedures, which limited pregnant people. 

Ford added that if more reporters noted that, on the whole, Americans are not severely divided about Roe v. Wade, the issue might not be thought of as politically controversial. 

“Our recommendation was not necessarily that the media avoid characterizing certain stances or policies as extreme, but that framing and rhetoric which depicts two sides of the abortion debate as far apart obscures the reality that a strong majority of Americans consistently supports Roe v. Wade and abortion access,” Ford said.