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In Coverage of Planned Parenthood Smear, Partisan Conflict Crowds Out Reproductive Rights

Demonstrators hold a sign in support of Planned Parenthood at a 2014 Moral Monday march in Raleigh.  (Photo:  Stephen Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

“Indictment Deals Blow to GOP Over Planned Parenthood Battle” was the New York Times‘ choice of headline for a January 26 piece reporting that a Texas grand jury—set to investigate the women’s health organization for selling fetal tissue for profit—found no wrongdoing on the part of Planned Parenthood, and instead indicted members of the anti-abortion group that made the deceptive video promoting the allegation.

From the story, you get that this “startling sign that a Republican campaign against the group has run into trouble” might pose problems for a Ted Cruz candidacy, and that the “war on women” narrative is part of the “Democratic playbook.” You even learn, in the 22nd paragraph of the 22-paragraph piece, that Planned Parenthood doesn’t sell fetal tissue for profit.

What you don’t get, really, is any sense that something as vital as a woman’s control over her own child-bearing is at stake.

A new report from the Women’s Media Center gets at part of why that’s so often the case. Looking at a year’s worth of coverage in big papers and wire services, the study found that women journalists wrote just 37 percent of articles about reproductive issues; 52 percent were written by men, the rest unbylined. In quotes from individuals, quotes from men—in articles about reproductive issues—outnumbered those from women 41 to 33 percent. Male reporters tell 67 percent of presidential election stories related to abortion and contraception.


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This is all connected to the fact that reproductive rights are still largely presented as political controversies or culture war pawns above all. The study found that female journalists were more likely than males to use quotes that addressed the issues primarily as matters of women’s health.

As it happens, the New York Times‘ partisan-framed Planned Parenthood story was written by a woman: Jackie Calmes, a reporter with a history of right-leaning spin. Her piece included quotes from four male sources and one female source.

Media’s partisan-conflict frame, says study author Jill Filipovic, crowds out the message of reproductive rights advocates that “abortion and contraception are normal, that abortion and contraception are moral, and women need the power to plan their families.” Even in articles that include a pro forma defense of the right to choose, how often have you heard that said?

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson

Janine Jackson is FAIR's program director and and producer/co-host of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR's magazine, Extra! and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s (Westview Press).

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