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Madelyn Webb

Author ››› Madelyn Webb
  • Lessons to learn from Oklahoma media’s insufficient coverage of an abortion criminalization bill

    Blog ››› ››› MADELYN WEBB

    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    Since November, Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Joseph Silk has aggressively promoted a now-tabled bill that would criminalize all abortions without exception. Silk is deeply tied to an extreme anti-abortion community that supports the “abolition” of abortion rights, but Oklahoma media's reporting on his abortion criminalization bill failed to identify or explain these extreme affiliations -- to the detriment of pregnant people in the state.

    Silk introduced SB 13 to reclassify abortion as homicide, making felons of both the doctors who perform them and the patients who receive them. The bill makes no exceptions for cases of rape or incest, and it carries harsh punishments for patients who use many forms of contraception and even some forms of fertility treatment. Though the Oklahoma bill is likely unconstitutional, it has already inspired similar legislation in other states, including Texas, Colorado, and Indiana.

    Oklahoma media repeatedly stumbled when reporting on this extreme bill -- failing to adequately contextualize Silk’s extreme anti-abortion position and its consequences, downplaying his supporters’ history of harassment, and repeating anti-choice talking points without pushback. Although the bill did not make it out of committee, news outlets covering similar extreme anti-abortion bills in other states should learn from these mistakes.

    Media should contextualize connections between abortion criminalization bills and the extreme          anti-abortion communities supporting them

    Silk’s anti-abortion advocacy and support for so-called abortion “abolition” is not a recent development. He has a history of introducing anti-abortion legislation in the Oklahoma Senate, and he spoke at a March 2018 campaign rally for then-gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher that was hosted by Operation Save America, an extreme anti-abortion group with a history of making threats and perpetuating harassment. Fisher’s campaign platform stated that he is “an abolitionist,” and it included a commitment to “defy the federal government” and “make Oklahoma the first abortion-free state.” After his campaign failed, Fisher’s staff founded the abortion abolition organization Free the States, which frequently hosts events supporting Silk and his bill.

    Abortion abolition groups differ from other anti-abortion groups by advocating for the immediate criminalization of abortion without any exceptions for cases of rape or incest. In addition to this extreme view, these so-called abolitionist groups also oppose most forms of birth control or reproductive intervention, including Plan B and in vitro fertilization. Silk is not an unwitting participant in the activities of this extremist community. In the past year alone, he has given multiple exclusive interviews to Free the States and endorsed the group’s extremist ideology. In return, the group announced that it will “gather our resources and put all hands on deck to demand that [Silk’s] bill is passed.”

    Almost no reporting on Silk's efforts to promote SB 13 included information about his ties to the abortion abolition community, despite the fact that he titled the bill the “Abolition of Abortion in Oklahoma Act.” Media’s failure to note both the extremism of Silk’s supporters and his individual endorsement of their ideology obscures the threat that bills like this present. 

    Outlets should avoid promoting or uncritically repeating anti-choice euphemisms and talking points

    Beyond the failure to note Silk’s involvement with the abortion abolition community, Oklahoma media also allowed Silk and his supporters to use these platforms to repeat anti-choice talking points. After Silk held a rally to promote his bill at the state Capitol, multiple Oklahoma outlets allowed Silk and his supporters to compare abortion to slavery and the holocaust with no pushback or context about why these statements are problematic.

    One segment featured a member of Free the States saying, “We have five free-standing child sacrifice centers. A lot of people call them abortion clinics.” Although this quote was irrelevant to the substance of the bill, its inclusion without pushback actively editorializes and fearmongers about abortion. Free the States later posted this clip to the group’s Facebook page, writing, “We can’t afford to run TV ads supporting #SB13 and our campaign to Free the States from their participation in the American Abortion Holocaust. But if we could, we would run them during the nightly news. Good thing they are running brief ads for us.”

    Outlets should be cautious about including quotes that do not provide information about the substance of criminalization bills. Quotes that reiterate anti-choice talking points -- scattered throughout articles with no counterpoint or pushback -- legitimize these extreme viewpoints and misrepresent the material harm these bills would have.

    Media should describe what these bill would actually mean for pregnant people’s ability to access desired health care options, including abortion

    Outlets reporting on abortion criminalization bills need to describe the realities of these policies, including the repercussions such extreme measures would have for pregnant people and abortion providers. For example, Oklahoma media published a series of articles covering Silk’s rally at the state Capitol, but the only pro-choice perspective included in many of these pieces was a brief quote from a Democratic lawmaker stating that the bill is unlikely to go anywhere. Some stories did not include any pro-choice perspectives at all. One exception to this trend was a February 13 article from The Oklahoman, which included a quote from the board president for Oklahoma Call for Reproductive Justice highlighting the dangers of the bill. Most news coverage of Silk’s event did not include the voices of people who provide or receive abortions, and many stories had no explanation of the consequences should the bill go into effect in Oklahoma. In covering Silk’s bill, some Oklahoma media outlets simply said that it would take “past efforts against abortion a step further.” While true, this characterization omits critical information and downplays the harmful impact such bills have.

    Already, patients across the country are being prosecuted for either miscarrying or self-managing abortions. In Indiana, a woman who attempted suicide when she was eight months pregnant was charged with murder. In Iowa, a pregnant woman was charged with feticide after she accidentally fell down the stairs. And bills such as Silk’s which further codify the criminalization of abortion care are guaranteed to exacerbate this problem. Under the Oklahoma bill, doctors who provide abortions could be charged with homicide. Silk’s bill would also criminalize selective embryo reduction, a common practice among patients who have received in vitro fertilization, making it more difficult for patients with fertility difficulties to receive treatment in Oklahoma.

    Reporting on abortion criminalization bills should center these kinds of consequences -- focusing on what happens if these harmful bills take effect, and specifically what they would mean for pregnant patients and their doctors. As more states introduce abortion criminalization bills, outlets can learn lessons from where Oklahoma media fell short. By providing context about the extreme background of the groups promoting these bills and ensuring that readers have access to information about their harmful impacts, outlets can avoid advertising for anti-abortion extremists.

    Correction (2/20/19): In the original version of this post, Media Matters incorrectly linked to a story from The Oklahoman when describing outlets that had failed to quote any pro-choice voices in coverage of SB 13. The link should have directed readers to a story from the Tulsa World.

  • Right-wing media used state abortion measures to villainize people who have abortions

    Blog ››› ››› MADELYN WEBB

    Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

    After several states promoted measures protecting abortion access, right-wing media not only spread an immense amount of misinformation about the efforts, but also lashed out at people who have had abortions, stigmatizing and denigrating them for making a personal health care decision. In particular, these outlets and media figures targeted people who have had abortions later in pregnancy -- by suggesting that they are heartless murderers, misrepresenting them as callous and irresponsible, and even calling them “satanic.”

    The bills that instigated this outrage are far from radical: Democratic lawmakers in New York and Virginia were attempting to protect abortion access at the state level, not to legalize “infanticide” -- as some right-wing media alleged. Right-wing media seized on clips of Democratic Virginia lawmakers Rep. Kathy Tran and Gov. Ralph Northan alledgedly describing later abortion procedures, spurring the spread of further hyperbole and misinformation about proactive state abortion protection bills. In reality, these measures would legalize abortions later in pregnancy “when the fetus is not viable or a woman’s health is at risk,” a far cry from right-wing media’s allegations that such procedures (and the people who have or provide them) are “demonic.”

    Here are just some of the examples of right-wing media misrepresenting people who have received abortions, a legal and sometimes necessary medical procedure:

    • Fox News contributors and right-wing internet personalities Diamond and Silk (Lynette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) tweeted that Democrats were trying to allow “abortions up to the birth” of a baby (they aren’t) and that this was “murder”: 

    • During the January 31 edition of his radio program, Fox News’ Sean Hannity claimed that people should take advantage of “birth control options” to avoid getting pregnant. He concluded that because of these options, someone who needs an abortion later in pregnancy is irresponsible because they either should have prevented the pregnancy or gotten an abortion “in the first three months.”
    • On Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News program, Justice with Judge Jeanine, political columnist Amy Holmes said, “There are women who kill their kids for selfish reasons."
    • In a series of tweets, Washington Examiner contributor Kimberly Ross attacked people who support access to abortions as "morally weak,” and accused patients who have received them of being “predatory” and of “stand[ing] on the backs of the unborn dead”:

    • During the January 31 edition of Fox News’ The Story with Martha MacCallum, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee alleged that people who have abortions later in pregnancy are doing so because they think having a child is “going to be an inconvenience.”
    • The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro also pushed the narrative that people who have abortions later in pregnancy are doing so callously, saying that people might argue “I’d be healthier if I didn’t have this 9-month-old baby right here that’s about to enter my vaginal canal. Cut its brains out,” and claiming, “That’s what this law now allows.”
    • During President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, Charlie Kirk, founder of the conservative group Turning Point USA, tweeted that later abortions are “despicable” and that anyone who supports efforts to protect or expand abortion access was endorsing “this savagery”:

    • After New York illuminated One World Trade Center with pink lights to honor the passage of abortion protections, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that New York was celebrating “legalized murder, calling it abortion."
    • During his Fox News program, Hannity, host Sean Hannity stated that because several laws that allow later abortion in order to protect the pregnant person’s health don’t further define what’s entailed in protecting health, “If someone says hours before [giving birth], ‘Oh, I'm having emotional second thoughts,’ and a doctor says, ’OK,’ then they're allowed to commit infanticide."
    • On Twitter, Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens said people celebrating state abortion protection measures -- which she said allow “slaughtering babies” -- were “satanic”:

    • During the January 31 edition of Fox News’ Fox News @ Night, actor Kevin Sorbo compared people who have abortions later in pregnancy to Nazis, saying: “You know, there's a group of people about 70 years ago that decided what lives were worth living, what lives were not, and they were called the Nazis.”
  • Media should avoid these traps in covering this year's March for Life


    Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

    The annual anti-abortion March for Life will take place on January 18 this year

    Every year in January, anti-abortion groups and individuals gather in Washington, D.C., to participate in the March for Life -- a series of events protesting the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade to legalize abortion in the United States. This year, the January 18 march will celebrate the theme “Unique from Day One: Pro-Life is Pro-Science.” That theme echoes a common argument from anti-abortion groups that “medical and technological advancements continue to reaffirm the science behind the pro-life cause” including “that life begins at fertilization, or day one.”

    Last year, media coverage of the March for Life demonstrated that some outlets were unable to handle the necessary fact-checking or provide the needed context about the extreme history of many anti-abortion groups, the deceptive science behind many of their claims, and the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies. This year, media can learn from these mistakes before the annual protest kicks off.

    Three lessons media should learn from the coverage of the 2018 March for Life

    #1 Avoid whitewashing the extremism of anti-abortion groups and spokespeople

    During the 2018 March for Life, there were several examples of outlets whitewashing anti-abortion groups and spokespeople by downplaying these organization’s long histories of extreme rhetoric and activism.

    For example, leading up to the 2018 event, NPR highlighted two anti-abortion leaders -- Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America, and Abby Johnson of And Then There Were None. In both reports, NPR failed to provide critical context about these anti-choice activists and the efforts of their organizations to oppose abortion access. In one piece, NPR asked Hawkins to comment on the status of various anti-choice movement priorities but failed to mention her long history of extreme comments about abortion, contraceptives, and more. These comments include her statement that certain forms of birth control should be illegal or are “carcinogenic” or “abortion-inducing,” as well as her claim that being an "abortion abolitionist" is "just like the slavery abolitionists." Similarly, NPR’s profile of Johnson and her organization focused on the group’s effort to “persuade as many [abortion clinic] workers as possible to leave the field.” Although NPR did note that the circumstances of Johnson’s departure from her own job at a clinic have been disputed by Planned Parenthood, the outlet did not substantively explain the details, which suggest there’s more to Johnson’s “conversion” story than meets the eye. NPR also didn’t explore the full spectrum of misinformation that Johnson regularly spreads about her former employer -- including the inaccurate claim that Planned Parenthood performs abortions on people who aren’t pregnant.

    Johnson is scheduled to speak during this year’s March for Life rally -- giving outlets ample opportunity to fact-check her inaccurate claims. In addition to Johnson, outlets must also avoid downplaying the extremism of other right-wing media and anti-abortion figures scheduled to speak during the event. These figures include Fox News commentator Alveda King and The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro, who will be recording an episode of his podcast before speaking at the rally on January 18.

    #2 Prevent anti-abortion groups from promoting junk science and unqualified “experts” to support anti-abortion policies

    During last year’s March for Life, outlets legitimized the false narrative of scientific support for anti-abortion policies by repeating unsubstantiated claims and manipulative terminology and by promoting so-called “scientific experts” without disclosing their ties to anti-choice organizations. For example, The Atlantic published an article the day before the 2018 March for Life quoting several representatives of the Charlotte Lozier Institute (CLI) without noting that the group was founded by the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List (SBA List) specifically to produce research supporting the anti-choice movement. Perhaps more concerning than CLI’s origins, the group is still operated as part of SBA List -- filing federal 990 tax forms as “The Susan B. Anthony List Education Fund.” The Atlantic’s failure to identify CLI’s ties to the wider anti-abortion movement earned the outlet a place in Rewire.News’ 2018 “Hall of Shame” for inaccurate or deceptive reporting on reproductive rights. Other outlets such as CNN and The Birmingham News have also made the mistake of either downplaying or omitting CLI’s affiliations when citing the anti-abortion group in reporting.

    Beyond failing to identify CLI’s anti-abortion affiliations in reporting, outlets have also continued to reiterate anti-abortion talking points and signal-boost partisan science. In March, The Associated Press published an article that repeated the discredited claim that there is a pathological link between having an abortion and developing “depression, anxiety and sleeping disorders.” In April, The Washington Post reported on a study that purported to show the effectiveness of a junk science anti-abortion procedure referred to as “abortion pill reversal,” but the journal that published the study was later forced to withdraw it after widely reported methodological concerns.

    The consequences of allowing anti-abortion junk science to go unchecked can already be seen in several states’ anti-choice laws. The unscientific concept of fetal pain was influential in passing an anti-abortion bill in Missouri, even though many medical experts have disputed the validity of the studies and claims used to support such laws. In other states like Ohio and Iowa, anti-abortion lawmakers are promoting bans on abortion as early as six weeks (before many people know they’re pregnant), on the grounds that abortion should be illegal if a doctor can detect a fetal heartbeat. Already in 2019, Kentucky lawmakers have proposed a similar ban -- despite previous arguments from doctors that such policies actually do more harm than good.

    Given the theme of this year’s march, media have a responsibility to accurately report on reproductive science and not to elevate pseudoscientific talking points from anti-abortion organizations without providing necessary context and pushback. In particular, media should:

    • Avoid using, or letting guests use, the phrase “partial-birth abortion,” which is not a medical term. Anti-abortion groups, in fact, invented the term to inspire shame and stigma. In reality, the term and the nonexistent medical practices to which it refers are a favorite right-wing and anti-choice media talking point when attacking access to later abortions.
    • Be skeptical of claims about so-called “post-abortion syndrome.” Although right-wing media and anti-abortion groups have long claimed that people experience regret or develop depression after having an abortion, the supposed evidence supporting such claims has been consistently refuted.
    • Provide ample context about the lack of evidence supporting so-called “abortion pill reversal,” an anti-choice medical procedure which supposedly allows a patient to reverse an abortion induced via pill. This procedure has been largely discredited as junk science, with one of the major studies supporting it having been pulled from a medical journal after ethical concerns were raised.
    • Identify and disclose the affiliations of Charlotte Lozier Institute’s “associate scholars” and staff. Given the theme of this year’s march, CLI will likely play a prominent role in promoting anti-abortion talking points and misinformation. Media have a responsibility to identify these so-called experts’ affiliation with an organization that has an explicit mission statement to eliminate “the scourges of abortion.” 

    #3 Avoid signal-boosting misinformation about the alleged popularity of anti-abortion policies and positions

    During the 2018 March for Life, several outlets spread misinformation about the American public’s alleged support for anti-abortion policies by sharing polling data without proper context or analysis. For example, in an article about the anti-abortion policies promoted by President Donald Trump’s administration, Politico shared a poll commissioned by the Catholic organization Knights of Columbus to support the anti-choice argument that Americans want greater restrictions on abortion access. However, as MSNBC’s Irin Carmon has previous explained of the Knights of Columbus poll, a simple shift in phrasing or question style could substantially alter the findings:

    You could ask Americans if they want Roe v. Wade overturned, as the Pew Research Center did in 2013, and learn that 63 percent want to see it stand. Or you could ask Americans to choose between two vague statements, like the recent poll the Marist Institute for Public Opinion conducted for the Knights of Columbus, a group that opposes abortion. Asked to pick between “it is possible to have laws which protect both the health and well-being of a woman and the life of the unborn; or two, it is necessary for laws to choose to protect one and not the other,” 77 percent said it was possible to do everything. The policy implications of the first statement are unclear.

    Further examining this phenomenon, Vox’s Sarah Kliff explained that “the public has diverse views on abortion” that cannot neatly be categorized or assessed. In another piece for Vox, Tresa Undem, co-founder and partner at a public-opinion research firm, thoroughly explored how much of “the current polling fails at accurately measuring opinion on this complex issue.” For example, Undem wrote, even those “who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases” when polled about the legality of abortion expressed a higher level of support for abortion access when questioned about their “‘real life’ views on the issue”:

    Among people who said abortion should only be legal in rare cases, 71 percent said they would give support to a close friend or family member who had an abortion, 69 percent said they want the experience of having an abortion to be nonjudgmental, 66 percent said they want the experience to be supportive, 64 percent want the experience to be affordable, and 59 percent want the experience to be without added burdens.

    Additional polling by Undem’s firm, PerryUndem, has also found that most people believe that the decision to have an abortion should be made by a patient and their doctor (and, to a lesser extent, the larger medical community) -- and not by politicians.

    There will be no shortage of claims during this year’s March for Life about the supposed popularity of anti-abortion positions. Given the theme of this year’s march, media should be prepared to provide audiences with the necessary context about polls, organizations, and anti-abortion media personalities included in their reporting about the march. Media must avoid oversimplifying public opinion polling or repeating inaccurate talking points in ways that uplift anti-choice misinformation.