If you get your information about abortion and reproductive rights from the evening cable news, you may be 64 percent wrong. Media Matters has released a year-long study of reporting on abortion, reproductive rights, and reproductive. The analysis of 354 segments on Fox, CNN, and MSNBC occurred from March 7, 2016 to March 1, 2017. The focus of these subjects was the election, legal issues, religion, anti-choice violence, economic and logistical barriers to abortion access, and state-based legislation on three topics—the discredited anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortion.
Coverage of Abortion and Reproductive Rights Was Male-Dominated Across All Networks: 60 percent of guests, hosts, and correspondents in these segments were male with hosts predominantly male—80 percent compared to only 20 percent female. Male hosts on Fox, representing more than the average on the three stations, were more likely to have male guests; CNN’s only program hosted by a woman, Erin Burnett Outfront, was the only program that had a majority of female guests. On MSNBC, only The Rachel Maddow Show and For the Record with Greta had more female appearances than male about these subjects.
Evening Cable News Features More Inaccurate Than Accurate Information About Abortion: 64 percent of the statements on these three cable stations contained inaccurate information about the Center for Medical Progress, abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortion. CNN had the fewest inaccurate statements, and Fox, with 80 percent inaccuracy, rose to the top. Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight had no accurate statements at all. (Note: sexist Tucker Carlson is replacing sexist Bill O’Reilly.) On MSNBC, Chris Matthews’ Hardball had the highest number of inaccurate statements—21 out of 27.
Disparities Between Discussions of Candidates’ Positions on Abortion Enabled the Spread of Misinformation: Over half the segments studied covered candidates’ stances on abortion access with Donald Trump leading on all three networks. Hillary Clinton’s position was discussed only 21 percent of the time with other candidates’ positions in the other 32 percent. Fox led in coverage about Clinton’s position while providing misinformation about late-term abortion, meaning that Fox watchers heard more negative statements about Clinton and reproductive rights than people watching CNN or MSNBC.
Conversations About Legal Restrictions on Abortion Outpaced Those About the Consequences of Limiting Access: The second most common focus for abortion was on courts and litigation, behind segments about the candidates’ positions on reproductive rights. Fox and MSNBC had the most pieces about this topic. Anti-choice violence and economic/logistical barriers to abortion access were barely addressed. Only one percent discussed the violence, and five percent concerned economical/logistical barriers. In the entire year, CNN failed to discuss anti-choice violence, and Fox had only one of the 354 segments, the one on The O’Reilly Factor when host Bill O’Reilly commented that the risk of this violence was low. All the anti-choice violence segments were on The Rachel Maddow Show which also showed five of the 11 segments on barriers available on MSNBC.
Fox News Dominated Discussions About Abortion in Concert with Religion or Faith: Abortion connected with religion/faith was the third most common intersection with Fox airing the most segments. Most of these were on Special Report, The O’Reilly Factor, and Hannity. Most of the few on MSNBC were on All In with Chris Hayes and The Rachel Maddow Show.
Misinformation About CMP (Center for Medical Progrss) Was Spread Almost Entirely by Fox New: Fox News aired all except one of the total statements about CMP, and 90 percent of these were wrong. The network typically described the group’s work as “investigative journalism” and failed to note the result of this “work” was refuted by multiple congressional and state investigations. Inaccurate statements came from most of the programs—Special Report, The O’Reilly Factor, The Kelly File, and Hannity. Sean Hannity invited discredited CMP founder David Daleiden on his show and gave him the entire segment to tell his inaccurate, anti-choice claim that Planned Parenthood illicitly sold fetal tissue, which multiple investigations have disproved.
All Networks Except Fox News Shared Largely Accurate Information About Planned Parenthood’s Essential Services: A prevailing anti-Planned Parenthood myth is that defunding it is no problem because these services are nonessential and can be provided by other community health centers (CHC). Accurate statements are that Planned Parenthood provides access to cancer screenings, pap smears, referrals, wellness exams, contraceptives, STD tests, family planning, or LGBTQ health services. CNN and MSNBC provided largely accurate information about this topic while statements from Fox were split 50/50 between accurate and inaccurate. Only 26 percent of CNN statements were wrong, split evenly between Anderson Cooper 360 and CNN Tonight. All the inaccurate statements on MSNBC were made on Chris Matthews’ Hardball. Most of the Fox inaccurate statements were on The O’Reilly Factor although a couple of them were on The Kelly File before she left the network.
Misinformation About Late-Term Abortion Dominated on Every Network: Tracking segments on late-term abortions showed inaccurate statements 88 percent of the time. False anti-choice terms chosen included “sex-selective” abortion, “race-selective” abortion, “partial-birth” abortion, abortions after 20 weeks that allegedly risk the feeling of “fetal pain,” “abortion until the moment of birth,” “abortion on demand,” or abortion for “anyone, anytime, anyplace.” A search of these terms shows that only 12 percent were accurate. Erin Burnett OutFront and CNN Tonight led CNN’s 75 percent inaccurate statements with either none or one accurate statement. Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room was over 50 percent inaccurate. On Fox, all statements on Special Report, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and Hannity were inaccurate, while The O’Reilly Factor, at 95 percent inaccuracy, had the largest number of inaccurate statement. The majority of the 73 percent inaccurate statements on MSNBC were on Hardball.
The above analysis includes only “substantial discussion” or segments with the topic of abortion or reproductive rights and not news or video clips in edited news packages except those made by a network correspondent. It provides a snapshot of accuracy on both networks and programs. The question for further research is the accuracy of these programs and networks in other areas.
With 60 percent of the discussants about women’s reproductive rights being male, the media people addressing the topic, as in politics, aren’t directly affected by decisions and therefore concentrate on court decisions and political candidates. Neglected are topics such as services lost through defunding health clinics, women’s health, and socio-economic barriers to abortion access.
Even more frightening in the analysis is the revelation that almost two-thirds of the statements are false, and the information about late-term abortions is almost 90 percent wrong. Many people get all their information from these inaccurate sources. Terms such as “fetal pain” and “abortion on demand” become part of the litany of people who vote against women’s rights and lead to increasingly horrific laws that limit women’s lives. Some people believed Donald Trump’s outrageous statement at a campaign debate that laws allowed doctors to “rip the baby out of the womb of the mother just prior to the birth of the baby.” This never happens.
The inaccuracies on cable TV haven’t stopped. Less than a month ago, Wolf Blitzer didn’t correct Secretary of Health Tom Price when he claimed that funding for Planned Parenthood is “fungible,” meaning that it supports abortions. The Guttmacher Institute pointed out the flaw: “Fungibility is an inherent possibility when involving the private sector in any government-subsidized activity, and the only way to avoid it would be for government agencies to exclusively provide any and all such services.” Also, if Price is correct, the “fungibility” also moves into taxpayers funding religion in federal subsidized organizations such as religious groups and charities. Yet Blitzer’s television audience didn’t hear that response.
It’s these inaccuracies that people use to pick candidates. Social media passes along billions of false computerized bots, candidates lie to get votes, and journalists don’t bother to check facts or follow their ideologies. When lies are corrected, people claim “alternate facts” or “emotional truth,” as if data doesn’t exist. This situation brought Brexit to Great Britain and the Republicans to the United States.
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