Study: News coverage presents inaccurate, stigmatizing view of abortion
Berkeley, Calif. — January 31, 2017 — In an increasingly volatile political landscape, abortion is at the forefront of hotly contested public debates in the media and elsewhere. A new report from the Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Sea Change Program examines media coverage of the issue through a new lens — stigma. While researchers have investigated how news coverage reinforces stigma around a range of public health issues, from HIV to mental illness, this is the first time a national study has looked at how stigma appears in news coverage of abortion in the U.S.
The study, "Shaping stigma: An analysis of mainstream print and online news coverage of abortion, 2014-2015," revealed that coverage perpetuated stigma in many ways, including through the frequent use of inflammatory language in quotes and attributions; the lack of firsthand stories from people who have had abortions; and the near absence of unbiased, scientifically accurate information about the safety and prevalence of abortion. The study was commissioned by the Sea Change Program, whose mission is to transform the culture of stigma around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive experiences.
"The news sets the agenda for how people think about certain issues," said Laura Nixon, report co-author and media researcher at Berkeley Media Studies Group. "When it comes to coverage of abortion, the media consistently frame the issue as a matter of politics, rather than health. Combine that with a lack of public health context and few quotes from people who have had or performed abortions, and you have a recipe for misleading the public and reinforcing stigmatizing messages."
"Nearly a third of women will have had an abortion by the time they are 45," Nixon added. "What's more, most of these women are already mothers, but instead of presenting abortion as commonplace, like other many other health procedures, the media's stigmatizing — and inaccurate — coverage presents it as an outlier."
Explicitly stigmatizing language in news coverage included references to abortion as murder, characterizations of abortion as harmful to women, and descriptions of abortion providers as unscrupulous profiteers, particularly after the release of the deceptively edited Center for Medical Progress videos. This type of language was present in just over half of all stories.
"The media's stigmatizing coverage of abortion is problematic because it masks the fact that the majority of the country supports access to this common health procedure," Steph Herold, co-director of the Sea Change Program, said. "Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we understand how the media contributes to stereotypes and misinformation about abortion and the impact of that on policy decisions and on people's lives."
Additionally, stigmatizing language in the news was rarely balanced with perspectives from people who have had an abortion. Individual stories about someone having an abortion were present in only 8 percent of articles, and in less than 3 percent of all articles did a person share a personal abortion experience. Personal disclosures most often came from public figures — rather than everyday people — and personal narratives from people of color were completely absent from the news.
"If media want to cover abortion with accuracy and without bias, their articles need to include public health data about abortion and prioritize speaking to people with direct personal experience as providers and patients," Herold said. "It's the media's responsibility to tell the real story of abortion, which is that it's normal, safe, common, and widely supported by the American public."
About Berkeley Media Studies Group
Berkeley Media Studies Group (BMSG) researches the way public health issues are characterized in the media and helps community groups, journalists and advocates use the media to advance healthy public policy. BMSG is a project of the Public Health Institute.
About the Sea Change Program
The Sea Change Program is a non-profit working to shift stigma so that all can live their sexual and reproductive lives with dignity and respect.