In the days after Politico published the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade on May 2, abortion rights coverage in the top 5 U.S. newspapers often left out key context about the potential impact of overturning Roe, Americans’ widespread support for abortion rights, and the other rights that could be endangered if Roe is overturned.
Early last month, Politico published a bombshell report based on a leaked draft opinion authored by Justice Samuel Alito, suggesting that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe in its upcoming decision on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Though the draft is not final, the court’s conservative majority could very well undo Roe’s protection of abortion access up to fetal viability. A decision is expected on the Dobbs case, in which the state of Mississippi directly asks the court to overturn Roe, before the court’s summer recess begins in late June or early July.
Past coverage of abortion rights by mainstream outlets has often downplayed the risk of Roe being overturned and trivialized the stark reality of abortion access becoming undone across the nation. Additionally, mainstream news has repeatedly and uncritically given a voice to bad faith anti-abortion activists despite their history of spreading false claims about the procedure.
Media Matters analyzed 144 articles on abortion rights published from May 2-10 in the five largest U.S. newspapers: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times. Media Matters coded the articles based on whether they included five key pieces of context about abortion rights: information about state trigger laws that would restrict abortion if Roe is overturned; mentions of groups that would be most affected by the decision; data on how many people would be affected; poll data showing that most Americans support Roe and legal abortion; and mentions of other privacy rights that could be endangered if Roe is overturned.
Nearly two-thirds (63%) of the articles analyzed failed to mention that abortion access in states with trigger laws will be severely restricted or virtually eliminated if Roe is reversed. Trigger laws are anti-abortion legislation that snap into effect if and when Roe ends. According to the Guttmacher Institute, “26 states are certain or likely” to severely restrict or ban abortions shortly after Roe is overturned, with 13 states having trigger laws tied directly to Roe’s reversal.
Over four-fifths (81%) of the articles Media Matters studied failed to identify demographic groups that would be disproportionately affected by Roe being overturned. These articles missed an opportunity to highlight the fact that abortion access is a racial and economic justice issue, since low-income people and people of color — particularly those in the Midwest and South — will be most impacted by the decision and subsequent restrictions on abortion.
More than three-fourths (76%) of articles left out data on how many people will be affected by overturning Roe or how they’d be affected. These articles missed crucial context on the 58% of U.S. women of reproductive age residing in states that are hostile to abortion rights; the hundreds of thousands of abortions that occur in the U.S. each year; the fact that the majority of abortions (54%) happen via medication; and the 81% increase in bad financial events, such as “evictions, bankruptcies, [and] court judgments on unpaid bills,” that occur to people denied abortions relative to those who received them.
Roughly two-thirds (67%) of articles did not include polling data showing that most Americans support Roe and legal abortion in all or most cases. This coverage omitted the fact that U.S. residents largely support abortion rights: According to recent polling, two-thirds of Americans want to keep Roe v. Wade in place, and a majority (61%) favor legal abortion in most or all cases.
Finally, nearly three-fourths (72%) of articles Media Matters analyzed failed to mention that Roe’s reversal could put other civil and human rights at risk. Alito’s draft opinion would strike down the implicit right to privacy found in Roe v. Wade, which would jeopardize other rights including access to contraception and fertility treatments, data privacy, LGBTQ marriage equality, and interracial marriage.
Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database in the top 5 U.S. newspapers (Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post) for any of the terms “Planned Parenthood,” “abortion,” “women’s health,” “women’s rights,” “Roe,” “Wade,” “reproductive,” “draft opinion,” “leak,” “Supreme Court,” or “SCOTUS” or any variation of any of the terms “pro-choice,” “anti-choice,” “pro-life,” or “anti-abortion” in the headline or lead paragraph from May 2, 2022, through May 10, 2022.
We included articles about abortion, Roe v. Wade, reproductive health, or the draft opinion leak, which we defined as instances when an article mentioned those topics in the headline or lead paragraph. We only included news articles, excluding opinion pieces, retrospectives, media reviews, and other non-news content.
We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they included pro-choice voices, included anti-choice voices, identified other rights at risk if Roe is overturned, mentioned trigger laws in U.S. states that would eliminate or restrict abortion access if Roe is overturned, mentioned groups most likely to be impacted, included statistics on how many people would be affected, or included polling data or other statements suggesting that a majority of Americans support abortion rights.