Media Memo: What Two NPR Stories Reveal About How to Report on Abortion

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Media Memo: What Two NPR Stories Reveal About How to Report on Abortion

Jodi Jacobson

It is the job of the media to help inform the public by providing information that is accurate, fair, and thorough, and neither misinforms nor oversimplifies. Unfortunately the media too often fails at its job, and in this case NPR did too.

Today I did what I do virtually every morning: Got up early, turned on the radio for Morning Edition, made a pot of coffee, and started my work day.

I listen to NPR every day, and with a close ear. As president of a media organization focused on evidence-based reporting, I am highly attuned to misrepresentations of the issues on which we work, the daily mistakes made by reporters and commenters, and the biases and false equivalencies that underlie much of the reporting I hear and read on our issues, even by venerable national news organizations like NPR.

This morning was no different, though it started out with a surprise. During an NPR segment on the most recent attack on Planned Parenthood by an anti-choice group known ironically as the Center for Medical Progress (CMP)—the “progress” they seek would rob millions of women of primary preventive care—reporter Jennifer Ludden did a masterful job of reporting facts about the videos circulated by CMP. And she did so without equivocation.

Unfortunately, this excellent segment was immediately followed by another on fetal tissue research, during which both the reporter and his producers seemed to try to cram as much misinformation and confusion into a four-minute piece as possible.

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The close juxtaposition of these two segments reveals the gap between good, thoughtful, and accurate reporting on issues like abortion, and reporting based on sources who use spurious “scientific” information, questionable “evidence,” and innuendo to make a case based on their own political agenda. It is the job of the media to help inform the public by providing information that is accurate, fair, and thorough, and neither misinforms nor oversimplifies. Unfortunately the media too often fails at its job, and in this case NPR did too.

In the first segment, Ludden spoke with Morning Edition host David Greene, who introduced the story by pointing out that the videos used to attack Planned Parenthood had been “heavily edited.” This in itself was critical. The fact that the videos were heavily edited and potentially deceptive became clear within 24 hours of their initial release. First, the timestamps on the edited version did not match up properly, making it unclear who was speaking about what and in answer to which questiona big red flag. Second, a longer version of that first video and a transcript released later that day revealed that not only did the transcript not match what had been portrayed in the short video, but that the claims about Planned Parenthood made by CMP were not at all supported by the videos themselves. Third, they were released by a group linked to some of the most vicious anti-choice operatives in this country, including Live Action and Operation Rescue. Much of the media could not be bothered with checking the integrity of these videos nor that of the source from which they came. Many outlets just reported the claims as if they came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and not an anti-choice front group. Once upon a time, it was safe to assume that credible journalists checked their facts and their sources before publishing a story based on defamation of an organization on serious charges, but in this case like many others today, most media outlets just skipped over that step to report on what are now clearly baseless claims made by CMP.

In speaking to Greene about the videos, Ludden immediately noted that CMP is funded by some of the largest anti-choice donors in the country. This put the discussion in context, because the anti-choice movement has created false assertions, one after another, about medical, scientific, and public health evidence on abortion and contraception to bolster their efforts to eliminate access to both. In fact, as Rewire has pointed out before, the anti-choice movement has taken a page from the tobacco companies of the past and adapted their strategies for their own purposes, including developing pseudoscience and making false claims, thereby trying to influence public opinion and legislation for purposes not supported by science and antithetical to public health.

Ludden went on to dispassionately explain what the videos contain. She underscored that the videos were taken undercover and without the knowledge of those who were taped (which is a violation of California law). She further noted that the videos were edited to suggest that Planned Parenthood doctors were talking about things they were not and never said, making plain that since the video was edited we can’t be sure what was said to whom and in what context in the course of the actual taped conversations. Ludden also noted twice that numerous experts have found that the videos were not only heavily edited but that the longer version of the videos, the supposedly “full story,” also had been edited to exclude, among other things, Planned Parenthood doctors repeatedly saying that the organization does not profit from fetal tissue research. (Moreover, what CMP initially claimed were the full unedited versions of the videos were actually not, and they have fought to avoid releasing those full unedited versions.) Finally, Ludden clarified—and in doing so fact-checks Carly Fiorina—that the videos misappropriated both personal and stock photos of stillborn fetuses (without permission) to portray them as fetuses post-abortion.

My only complaint about this segment is that Greene and Ludden each misrepresented public opinion on abortion and fetal tissue research by implying a large share of people in the United States are against both. This is simply not true: The majority of Americans support access to safe abortion services and until the recent circus came to town fetal tissue research has long enjoyed bipartisan support. All that said, this segment was far and away one of the best I have heard on this issue.

By contrast, the next segment was based on the kind of false equivalencies that have undermined the integrity of so much of journalism today. In the segment, NPR reporter Rob Stein first interviewed Larry Goldstein, a professor and researcher at the University of California, San Diego who has a long background in fetal tissue research. Goldstein uses fetal cells to create drugs for alzheimer’s disease and to help paralyzed people walk again. Goldstein called fetal cells “vital at this time because, to our knowledge, they have the best properties for the kinds of experiments we need to do.” Stein noted that fetal tissue cells have been used for decades, mentioned their role in helping create vaccines and in many other kinds of medical research. He also interviewed researcher Carrie Wolinetz from the National Institutes of Health, who underscored the importance of fetal tissue in research and said that “fetal tissue is used to study early brain development” because it grows fast, lives a long time, and is incredibly versatile.

Stein then went on, however, to interview David Prentice of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, who claimed that use of fetal tissue for research is “outdated.” Prentice provided no evidence whatsoever for this claim nor did he point to successful medical advances based on use of his suggested alternatives.

Stein’s choice of Prentice is questionable at best, but far worse is that Stein failed to mention that, as we have previously reported, the Charlotte Lozier Institute was founded in 2011 as the “education and research arm” of the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List—a Beltway nonprofit that focuses on electing anti-choice politicians to Congress—with the express purpose of upending decades of international research on the role of safe abortion in reducing maternal death and illness. Not surprisingly, CMP’s “parent company,” the SBA List also promotes otherwise unfounded theories that claim, for example, women who have an abortion are at higher risk of poor mental health outcomes. The Charlotte Lozier Institute widely disseminates discredited theories aimed at promoting medically unsound restrictions on abortion, and reportedly spent $11,411 in 2012 seeking out academic and policy experts to provide oral and written testimony in favor of policies that restrict access to legal abortion.

Stein also failed to tell his listeners that Prentice previously spent 20 years at the Family Research Institute, the virulently anti-choice, anti-gay-rights group. Nor does he mention Prentice’s affiliation either with the John Paul II Institute at Catholic University, or the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center, an organization set up with taxpayer funding by anti-choice Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, and which appears to have no research successes to its name.

Next, Stein interviewed Dr. Kathleen Schmainda, a Professor of Radiology and Professor of Biophysics at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee. In his preface, Stein said that “Schmainda and numerous others” oppose the use of fetal tissue research, and Schmainda went on to talk about the “abortion industry,” an anti-choice catch phrase. Stein did not mention that Schmainda is closely affiliated with orthodox Catholic groups in Wisconsin, did not mention who the “numerous others” are, and did not mention that the Medical College of Wisconsin itself strongly and publicly opposes legislation proposing to ban fetal tissue research in Wisconsin.

In fact, Dr. John Raymond Sr., president and CEO of the Medical College of Wisconsin, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the Medical College opposes the provisions in the draft that would “ban and criminalize the possession and research of federally allowed fetal tissue and fetal-derived cell lines that have been used worldwide for decades.”

“The legislation will result in the loss of jobs, talented scientists and clinicians, and Wisconsin biotechnology companies. Clearly, this legislation will adversely impact the Wisconsin economy,” Raymond said.

Far from the suggestion given in Stein’s piece that there is a large contingent from the Medical College that opposes this research, the official position of the college supports it.

These failures completely biased Stein’s entire report because he offered as experts people who were speaking to critical public health and medical issues from the perspective of their own religious beliefs and political affiliations, not from science and evidence. The listener, however, would not know this and so could easily come away with the impression that Stein spoke to a set of experts with equivalent standing and credentials in the medical community.

This type of false equivalency reporting, with implications and patterns of omission for which reporters, editors, and producers apparently no longer think they bear responsibility, is at its core, bad for public health, bad for science, bad for progress, and bad for democracy. It’s bad journalism. It is also a real and present danger to the millions of women whose health care and rights are at the center of political battles around which careful, factual, and honest reporting is desperately needed.

We need independent news organizations to do their jobs and do them well, or they don’t deserve the public dollars on which they rely. NPR can and should do better now and in the future by emulating the fully fact-based reporting provided by Ludden. Otherwise, it risks damaging the integrity and respect it has built up over so many decades and simultaneously contributing to the deterioration of democratic and evidence-based processes for making public policy.