Media Matters’ Sharon Kann talks about abortion stigma in media coverage on Hellbent podcast
Kann says that good reporting on abortion is getting “drowned out” by “inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage"
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On the April 26 edition of the Hellbent podcast, Media Matters’ Sharon Kann spoke with co-host Devon Handy about four topics: (1) The Atlantic’s firing of Kevin Williamson; (2) abortion coverage that often plays into abortion stigma and ignores the reality that abortion is a common health care procedure; (3) an upcoming Media Matters study showing that right-wing misinformation is crowding out good coverage on abortion; and (4) anti-abortion fake health clinics that have taken advantage of the fragmented media space.
1. The Atlantic recently fired writer Kevin Williamson after Media Matters found audio of Williamson defending his previous comment that people who have abortions should be hanged. Handy and Kann also discussed Williamson’s opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, in which he lamented his supposed persecution. Kann said that he ignored the harm that violent rhetoric like his can cause to those who have had abortions:
SHARON KANN: The ultimate point he made was that he was trying to be provocative, although he did admit sloppily, because he didn't think that people who support abortion access are willing to have, I think he said, a candid conversation about the reality. And we know that's not true. There are people telling their abortion stories and there are people reporting -- there are people doing good reporting on abortion and what it means to have an abortion in the United States.
DEVON HANDY (CO-HOST): Right.
KANN: And that he doesn't want to engage with those stories doesn't mean people aren't candidly engaging. And it doesn't mean that he gets to call for, or at least on multiple occasions suggest, that it's appropriate for them to be hanged.
HANDY: Right. Right. And he's also made just a smorgasbord of awful, racist, sexist comments on a number of topics and then he has, like you said, this sort of gall to go on The Wall Street Journal and whine about how the Twitter mob came for him and how, and what I think he's getting at, which he doesn't necessarily specifically say it in this Wall Street Journal article, but he said that -- it seems that he's saying that white conservative men are the disadvantaged in the media landscape right now. So, do you think that's what he's saying? Does he really believe that? I mean, again you can't speak to him in particular. But I'm just a little confused by his whole premise.
KANN: I mean, I think his premise kind of demonstrates what the markers to him are of, not just success, but of what it means to be held accountable or to experience -- I won’t call it oppression in his case, but to experience pushback on a viewpoint that you have.
KANN: I think he has a line in that Wall Street Journal piece about how if you want to understand what ideas are truly, truly oppressed, truly put upon, like look at who's getting sponsorship from Google and getting South by Southwest panels. And his implication is that for a white conservative writer, they are experiencing oppression because they're not getting corporate sponsorships. Where, on the flip side, other people are hearing the types of rhetoric that -- I mean, even if we don't want to go so far to say that he believes this, the rhetoric that he's espousing -- and having a reaction of saying, I've had an abortion, and hearing that someone would call for me to be hanged, it feels like an actual type of oppression and it feels threatening. And so for him, and I think the people defending him along that same line, to be saying that a marker of oppression is not getting a sponsorship is kind of a stark opposition to what real markers of oppression would be.
2. Kann also explained that Media Matters’ annual studies of coverage of abortion and reproductive health in evening cable news have found that discussions of abortion are often framed around politics or religion and that they ignore the reality that abortion is a “common ... health care experience”:
HANDY: I feel like with something like abortion rights and reproductive health coverage, it is scientific in a lot of ways and it relies on a medical, scientific understanding. And do you think that that's actually part of the conversations that we're having or is it more emotional?
KANN: I think that -- so it's actually interesting -- that's an interesting way of phrasing the question because we've actually looked at -- every year we do a study that looks at, not just who is having conversations about abortion in particular on prime-time cable news, but how that coverage is framed.
KANN: And we do one of these every year. The most recent one we did last year found that more often when we're having conversations about abortion, at least in those prime-time sections, the conversations are framed almost entirely around abortion as a political issue or abortion as a matter of faith when in reality, like you said, it is a medical practice. It's a legal health care procedure. And you know, I don't think people are usually having the conversation in those kind of ways.
HANDY: Why do you think that is?
KANN: I think partly it's like what you said. I don't think outlets are doing all the work they should be doing to center conversations about abortion as something that is common and something that is a health care experience. And I think part of it is that you know, even when outlets have the best of intentions they're not always giving people all the information they need to understand why certain things are happening in conversations about abortion. So, for example, in our work a lot we think about this in terms of abortion stigma, where people can be trying to have a conversation about abortion or report on a new restriction or even a new piece of legislation meant to expand access to reproductive rights, and they might include a lot of phrasing about how abortion is inherently tragic or how it's a very difficult decision. And some people might experience it that way but to treat that as the universal implies there's something not normal about that health care experience.
KANN: So I think that people are kind of interacting with it in those frames. And that's why we are having the frank, fair, and factual conversations about abortion I think we would like to see.
3. Kann also previewed an in-the-works Media Matters study on abortion coverage that will demonstrate that right-wing and anti-abortion outlets are “talking more about abortion” and talking about it in such a way that good reporting on abortion is getting “drowned out” by “inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage”:
HANDY: So, you have been writing about abortion rights and reproductive health for over two years. Have you seen a shift in how media covers these topics?
KANN: I think -- that's a good question -- I think, I've seen more examples of individual reporters and even specific outlets that are going out of their way to center, not just narratives about abortion, but factual narratives about abortion that focus on the voices of people who have had them. And I find that really encouraging.
KANN: On the flip side, I've also seen, in particular for major outlets, sort of a failure to center those conversations. And I think, you know, I mentioned the study that we typically put out every year; we're about to put out our most recent edition of that forthcoming. And something that we've seen in that, and that I think bears across anecdotally a lot of what I've seen for the past two years, is that right-wing and anti-abortion outlets are just talking more about abortion. And they're talking about it at a volume that, I think even when we have good instances of reporting from like progressive outlets, it's getting kind of drowned out. And so there's almost a void of coverage that's being filled by inaccurate, stigmatizing right-wing coverage.
HANDY: Right. Has there been a shift in particular since Trump has taken office?
KANN: I think that there's more awareness since Trump has taken office. I think, because although a lot of the policies that the Trump administration is championing particularly in the context of abortion and reproductive rights are problematic in a lot of ways, I think they're more visible to people because they're operating at a national level. But I think it's also important to remember that a lot of the policies that they're championing are either things that have been operating at the state level for years or that the people now in positions of power have been trying to push at state levels or in anti-abortion organizations for years. So I think people are more aware -- I see a more general attentiveness and engagement with people. But I think it's that full context is also hopefully something people are taking from that.
4. Kann and Handy also discussed anti-abortion fake health clinics and how a fragmented media landscape has led to those clinics pushing their own media platforms “independent of any external fact-checking or accountability”:
HANDY: So what are the tools that people can use or what are the things that people can look for when looking for verified or, quote unquote, “good information” from any news source?
KANN: Yeah, I mean, I think that is sort of the basics of vetting information and critical thinking are all sort of the short of the answer. I think folks should always pay attention to where they're sourcing their news from. In particular, you know, there are outlets or there are entities that try to present themselves as media outlets but that have none of the safeguards or none of the quality control than an actual news outlet would have. So making sure you understand what the outlet is and where they're sourcing from. Making sure that if something seems too good to be true or seems alarming that you can source it back to you know, either primary documents or another like in a -- hopefully like an outlet you recognize can back it up as well and just sort of making sure you're going through all those steps to ensure that the information you're getting is accurate.
HANDY: You know, it's kind of funny. As you were saying that I was thinking these outfits that present themselves as media outlets it's kind of like crisis pregnancy centers positioning themselves as health care providers for women who are seeking abortions. …
KANN: Yeah, definitely.
HANDY: And that sort of parallel is very interesting that we're dealing with two things at once here.
KANN: Yeah. I mean, I think that's something that we as Media Matters have done a decent amount of research and some content on our website about as well, which is that one of the most interesting evolutions I think we've seen is not just that crisis pregnancy centers, or these fake anti-abortion health clinics, aren't just operating to deceive people trying to come in, they're also, in some cases, operating media outlets and platforms independent of any external fact-checking or accountability --
KANN: -- because that is how they try to access -- get people to access their information and think they're credible. So it's not even just the centers themselves that operate in that deceptive way. They're starting to adopt these tactics as well.