‘He Said/She Said’ Journalism: A Growing Threat to Public Health

Actress Jenny McCarthy got more pushback for her anti-science statements on morning TV than most politicians do for making similarly discredited statements about reproductive health care.

Jenny McCarthy talks to CNN about her son's autism. CNN / YouTube

The recent announcement that actress Jenny McCarthy is replacing Elisabeth Hasselbeck on the popular ABC morning talk show The View has sparked an intense wave of backlash.

The problem is that after McCarthy’s son was diagnosed with autism, she became convinced it was because of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, and over the last several years she has reinvented herself as the leading celebrity voice of the anti-vaccine movement. Although the study that originally sparked the MMR vaccine-childhood autism panic has since been completely discredited, many parents have stopped vaccinating their children, in part because of anti-vaccine advocacy carried out by McCarthy and others. As a result, measles cases have spiked in recent years.

Critics say that McCarthy’s anti-science views are a public health hazard, and giving her a platform, on a morning talk show or in other media outlets, legitimizes her view. For instance, “Larry King had [McCarthy] debate a doctor, as though her disproven ideas should be given the same equivalence as those of a medical expert,” The Nation editor and publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote recently, adding, “False equivalency is one of journalism’s great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve ‘balance,’ reporters often obscure the truth.” As Brendan Nyhan, writing at the Columbia Journalism Review, argued, uncritically repeating discredited statements just amplifies the spread of misinformation.

False equivalence is the worst of what New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and others have called “he said/she said” journalism. It takes much less time—and subject expertise—to frame a story as a “controversy” than to give it informative context. (Not to mention that a non-scientific minority opposition to the vetted facts does not qualify as a “controversy.”)

When it comes to covering health and science, the “he said/she said” short-cut is downright dangerous.

It’s unfortunate then that media coverage of reproductive health issues often falls into this trap as well.

Reproductive Health

Hasselbeck, the former Survivor contestant whom McCarthy will replace, once argued to one of her co-hosts on The View that taking the morning-after pill is “the same thing as birthing a baby and leaving it out in the street.” She said that she believes emergency contraception (EC) disrupts a pregnancy. In fact, EC prevents ovulation from occurring, preventing fertilization in the first place. Since the medical definition of pregnancy is successful implantation of a fertilized egg, effective use of EC means you can’t get pregnant in the first place.

Yet there was relatively little outrage over Hasselbeck’s remark or the dispute, which was described in many outlets, as usual, as a “cat fight” between hosts.

When it comes to reproductive health, we have a much higher tolerance for hearing anti-science beliefs with serious public health consequences. Of the many fake-science falsehoods published every day on reproductive health issues, only the most obvious draws McCarthy-level heat. Most memorable is the belief, shared by an ever-expanding number of lawmakers, that women’s bodies contain magic lady-venom to prevent pregnancy in cases of rape.

While these legislators draw much deserved public ridicule, it’s the less obvious anti-science and evidence-free statements published every day that are most dangerous.

For example, the federal 20-week abortion ban being pushed by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) and other bans like it are premised on preventing fetal pain, even though scientific studies have consistently found that fetal pain is unlikely before the third trimester.

Rep. Franks has as little expertise about the science of fetal pain or the public health consequence of banning abortions at 20 weeks as Jenny McCarthy does about vaccinations. Yet he’s pressed the issue, despite the fact that the bill has little to no chance of passing the Senate. Why would Franks make such a production of a failing endeavor?

There may be a few reasons, but one of them is certainly that anti-choice politicians can rely on “he said/she said” reporting to help them spin doomed policy into good PR that lays the groundwork for a future attempt to roll back reproductive rights. In other words, Franks strategically exploited the legislative process as an ad hoc taxpayer-funded public relations gimmick.

It’s a calculated risk that relies on bad reporting. Journalists who report on the bill’s title—the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act”—and premise without noting that fetal pain at 20 weeks has been authoritatively discredited help spread misinformation that could gin up future support for the bill or others like it.

Stories about targeted regulation of abortion provider (TRAP) legislation are also a hotbed of false equivalence. TRAP laws require clinics that provide surgical abortion care to adhere to guidelines originally established for ambulatory surgical centers (ASCs). Under TRAP laws, clinics must often undergo architectural renovations that can be prohibitively expensive or logistically impossible, thereby forcing some clinics to shut down.

After a TRAP law passed in Texas recently, the Washington Post reported that only six of the state’s 42 abortion clinics meet the new requirements. The piece goes on to say, “Opponents say the legislation means dozens will be shuttered. Supporters argue that the new restrictions protect both new lives and the health of women.”

That’s a pretty representational summary of how articles covering TRAP laws frame the issue. From those lines, we know that anti-choicers support the new requirements and pro-choicers do not. But we have no idea what the bill means for public health or where the evidence lies. Can we reasonably expect that the new regulations will improve the safety of abortion care, or not? Are clinics likely to close, or not?

It’s not as if there isn’t data to parse. State departments of health publish abortion complication statistics. What are the current complication rates in Texas? How much can we expect that number to go down, if at all, after the new regulations are implemented?

As Daniel Okrent, the first public editor of the New York Times, famously observed, “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.”

Either there’s evidence to suggest that ASC regulations will improve the safety of abortion, or there isn’t.

The fact is that no evidence exists that ASC guidelines improve the safety of abortion. Data, by way of observing other states, does exist that some clinics will shut down if they can’t afford the required renovations or the department of health does not implement a process for granting exceptions, like in Pennsylvania. We also know from Pennsylvania and other states that already implemented the law that many clinics that don’t close will have to spend thousands of dollars to comply with a regulation that has no evidence of being a public health benefit. What type of policy besides that focused on reproductive health would we publicly debate without a basic cost-benefit analysis?

Worse, by focusing on “he-said/she said,” the larger question remains ignored: If the clinics close, what will happen to patients who rely on those health centers for routine gynecological care, birth control, and access to safe abortion care?

A Better Way

Blatant misinformation is propelling the onslaught of anti-choice bills across the country. No scientific evidence supports the idea that fetal pain exists at 20 weeks. There is no evidence that ASC guidelines improve the safety of abortion. There is no evidence that abortion causes breast cancer. There is no evidence that abortion causes depression. Yet all of these ideas are being used to push anti-choice bills, and the supporters are relying on “he said/she said,” pass-the-mic-and-call-it-a-day reporting to help spread the acceptance of fake science.

In simplest terms, the current anti-choice efforts are well-coordinated propaganda campaigns designed to strategically spread disinformation—and “he-said/she-said” reporting helps them get the job done. The job of a journalist is to give government talking heads a reality check, not a megaphone.

Some critics have suggested that false equivalence pervaded coverage of McCarthy and her anti-vaccination beliefs because the story was categorized as entertainment. But the same type of journalism routinely defines reproductive health care because it’s categorized as politics.

CORRECTION: A version of this article incorrectly noted that EC prevents pregnancy after sex by preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg. In fact, EC prevents ovulation. We regret the error.