In a world of corporate media outlets obsessed with eyeballs and clicks for profit, and operating in fear of right-wing claims of “media bias,” the use of false equivalencies to “represent both sides” of an issue has become a mainstay of reporting. Covering sex education? Forget the wealth of social science evidence on what works to protect teens and public health. Just ask people their opinion and cover “both sides”! Reporting on climate change? Forget decades of evidence of melting ice caps, rising sea levels, and increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Just ask climate change denier Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) what he thinks!
Using false equivalencies effectively means giving equal time to those who spread misinformation and, in many cases, outright lies, abrogating the ethical responsibilities of journalists to be accurate and fair. And this is exactly what the Associated Press did last week when it published an article on 20-week abortion bans that epitomized the worst of reporting on abortion.
The article, which focused primarily on a 20-week ban passed in South Carolina, did a fair job of covering the facts on the legislation in that state and in the context of bans in other states… until it came to what mattered: the medical accuracy of claims underlying such bans.
In the article, reporter Seanna Adcox wrote:
Supporters believe a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. Opponents argue such later-term abortions involve wanted pregnancies that go horribly wrong, and politicians should play no role in the difficult decision.
And here you have it: The crux of complicated issues always reduced to “supporters” and “opponents.” After all, they’re all equal, no?
No. They are not.
“Supporters” of 20-week abortion bans (and many other such laws) include groups like Americans United for Life and the National Right to Life Committee (both of which have drafted model legislation for these bans), as well as others such as the Susan B. Anthony List. Each of these groups uses false science and unfounded claims of “fetal pain” to pass legislation that threatens access to critical reproductive health care; the anti-choice movement’s self-important “pro-life” designation elides the fact that women’s health and lives are in grave danger wherever such care is unavailable.
Who are the “opponents” of 20-week abortion bans? These include the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, and a range of international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics. In other words, every relevant, respected, and recognized medical body in the world opposes such bans.
This is not a case of the opinions of supporters versus opponents on which uniforms are best for the local softball team or what color curtains should hang in the dining hall. Instead, it is a group of people with absolutely no legitimacy making and passing legislation rejected by the weight of the international medical and public health communities.
In a press release titled “Facts Are Important”—which tellingly reads like a plea for rationality in reporting—ACOG stated:
A rigorous 2005 scientific review of evidence published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) concluded that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester. Although ultrasound monitoring can show intrauterine fetal movement, no studies since 2005 demonstrate fetal recognition of pain.
Sound health policy is best based on scientific fact and evidence-based medicine. The best health care is provided free of governmental interference in the patient-physician relationship. Personal decision-making by women and their doctors should not be replaced by political ideology.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), representing more than 58,000 ob-gyns and partners in women’s health, supports robust, factual debate on issues of importance to the American people.
Is it “fair and accurate” to posit the assertions of anti-choice groups, which base their claims on ideology and contrived “evidence,” as equal to medical and public health experts? Is it in the public interest to suggest that an issue that is fundamental to both human rights and public health be decided by reducing a vast body of evidence to equal that of organizations with an overriding political agenda? Is it good journalism by any standard?
There is only one answer to all of these questions, and it is “no.” AP’s piece was irresponsible, but it also reflects that current state of reporting on reproductive health care by many outlets, including NPR, the Washington Post, and others.
No matter how strong the backlash from the small but loud contingent of people within the anti-choice movement, it is the media’s job to report fairly and responsibly. Making the claims of anti-choice “supporters” of abortion bans equivalent to the consensus of the medical and public health community not only abrogates the public trust, it puts all of us in danger.
The media’s reliance on false equivalencies has to stop. People’s lives are at risk, and we can’t afford it.