According to a new analysis released on Monday, a majority of abortion-related statements shared on evening cable news shows are false. That may be because, of the three cable news networks studied in the new report from Media Matters For America, Fox News was found to be driving the conversation.
Or, as study author Sharon Kann told Vox: When it comes to abortion, “Fox News is the loudest voice in the room. When other networks do engage, the terms are already set.”
Researchers looked at abortion and reproductive rights coverage from Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC that aired on their evening news programs between March 1, 2018, through February 28, 2019. They reviewed transcripts from 19 shows including CNN’s The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, and Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight.
The study’s authors focused on four common abortion-related topics: abortion funding rules; Planned Parenthood’s health services; the fake videos from Center for Medical Progress that purported to show Planned Parenthood doctors discussing the sale of fetal tissue; and “extreme” abortion procedures, such as “abortions until the moment of birth,” which medical experts say simply do not happen.
According to the report, Fox News aired 334 TV segments that focused significantly on abortion during the study period. In comparison, MSNBC aired 115 segments, while CNN had 77.
Overall, a total of 734 inaccurate abortion-related statements were recorded across all three networks while researchers only found 150 statements to be true. Unsurprisingly, a majority of those incorrect statements came from Fox News (708). According to the analysis, a full 85 percent of Fox News' statements about the four topics studied contained misinformation. The authors wrote "CNN and MSNBC covered the topic far less than Fox, leaving a void in coverage that was filled by inaccurate statements."
When CNN and MSNBC did discuss abortion, they weren't very accurate either and were often responding to poltical controversies. “Across the three networks collectively, 89 percent of statements made about so-called abortion ‘extremism’ were inaccurate,” the study states. “On Fox, 90 percent of statements about this topic were inaccurate, as were 100 percent of the statements on CNN and 58 percent of the statements on MSNBC. This means that when CNN and MSNBC were talking about abortion, they were often echoing right-wing talking points.”
For example, thanks to the Hyde Amendment, no taxpayer money goes toward abortions except in the cases of rape or to save the woman's life. But conservatives argue that money used for non-abortion services is "fungible"—that is, it's in their bank accounts and providers can use it for whatever they want, but this is not true. Still, here is Chris Matthews on MSNBC in May 2018: "[Trump] is out there again today punishing basically Planned Parenthood, even if the money doesn`t go to abortion services, it`s someday—some of their money does. Therefore, it`s fungible and he wants to shut them down."
In short: Accurate media coverage on abortion is sorely lacking on today’s cable news shows and right-wing media is defining the parameters under which it's discussed.
As of press time, neither CNN or MSNBC had responded to VICE's request for comment.
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Reproductive rights organizations say this misinformation is a huge problem. Destiny Lopez, co-director of All* Above All, told VICE that media outlets play a role in the fight for reproductive rights and access to abortion care by shedding a light on who’s hurt the most by restrictive abortion legislation.
“We know from our work around the Hyde Amendment that insurance coverage bans impact low-income people, women of color, and young people the most,” Lopez said. “It is incredibly important that media outlets accurately portray who is most impacted by abortion restrictions, including bans on insurance coverage.”
The Very Reverend Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, agreed that cable news has the capacity to sway public opinion, and should take their role more seriously. Cable TV news shows draw huge audiences, including lawmakers who actually believe the anti-abortion misinformation being shared, she said. Ultimately, the impact is the passing of laws not rooted in facts, which hurt patients.
For example, Ragsdale said, her organization has been flooded with calls since states began passing laws that limit access to abortion, such as the “fetal heartbeat” laws that have recently been challenged in Missouri and Ohio. Thanks to widespread misinformation, many people across the country believe abortion is inaccessible, which is not yet true anywhere, she said.
“People need to know the truth, Ragsdale said. “People need to know the truth to make their own informed decisions about how they want to live their lives. Legislators need to be hearing the truth in order to pass responsible and reasonable laws. People who elect them need to hear the truth in order to make reasonable decisions about whom they’re going to elect. People need to know what their options truly are, and what the impact of those options are.”
Ragsdale also pointed out that there’s a greater need for accurate media reporting on abortion because of the Trump administration’s Title X “gag rule,” which prohibits providers who receive federal funding from referring patients for abortions.
“It’s bad enough to stand between a doctor and a patient and insist on a vow of silence,” she said. “But then to supplement that with a public media blitz of lies...is horrifying.”
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