Commentary Media

Five Ways to Ensure Scientifically Accurate Reporting on Reproductive Rights

Amanda Marcotte

The BBC was recently told it needs to value scientific accuracy over having "all sides" represented. U.S. media should do the same thing, especially when it comes to debates over reproductive rights.

It’s actually kind of sad how exciting this news is: The BBC, under fire from an external investigation from the independent BBC Trust, has been told its coverage of science issues should put more of a priority on scientific accuracy over “impartiality.” The BBC has been criticized for trying to give “both sides” of the climate change debate equal coverage, when one of those sides—the one arguing against climate change theory—is composed of a bunch of junk scientists making stuff up, while the other side has the force of scientific consensus behind it. It’s the equivalent of having a “debate” about whether or not gravity exists with a scientist explaining Einstein and Newton on one side and the other side headed by someone who claims to be a wizard who’s figured out how to fly.

While the decision of the BBC Trust to push for factual accuracy over giving every random person a shot at airtime was spurred by the problem of climate change denialism, the way scientific issues are covered more generally was called into question. Referencing a series of workshops that BBC senior staff members began attending after the review began in 2010, the BBC Trust reported, “The key point the workshops tried to impart is that impartiality in science coverage does not simply lie in reflecting a wide range of views, which may result in a ‘false balance.’”

The report led some American journalists to wonder what, if anything, U.S. media might do to institute similar practices , since our news media is arguably a much more egregious offender when it comes to treating someone who is speaking fact as equivalent of someone spouting fantasy.

It’s hard not to wonder how different the debate over reproductive rights in this country would look if pundits were restrained from, or just felt duty-bound, to accept scientific fact—or facts in general! (If I hear one more right-wing pundit claim that the Hobby Lobby case is about “the government” buying women “free” contraception, I will scream. It’s about women using their own earned benefits to buy contraception, no government funding involved.) Likewise, what if every news story covering the issue made a point of correcting scientific misinformation spouted by anti-choicers? It wouldn’t do anything to change anti-choice minds, but it could go a long way toward clearing up some confusing issues and allowing the actual values debate to be understood for what it is.

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Here are some simple fixes to media coverage of reproductive rights that would do wonders for improving audience understanding of the issue:

1. In stories about regulations on abortion clinics, remind audiences that abortion is very safe and that abortion clinics are already subject to the same regulations as other clinics providing similar services. Because of anti-choice misinformation, many viewers/readers may be unaware that legislative efforts to pass a bunch of regulations on abortion clinics have nothing to do with improving safety. What would go miles in clarifying what’s really at stake here? A statement like this: “Abortion clinics are currently regulated under the same rules as all other clinics, which medical experts believe is appropriate since abortion is an extremely safe outpatient procedure.”

2. Be clear on the difference between a zygote, an embryo, and a fetus. Even stalwart pro-choicers sometimes make this mistake, so I’m not pointing fingers. But invoking the word “fetus” when referring to abortion implies that most abortions happen later in pregnancy than they do. Most abortions terminate an embryo, not a fetus.

3. Birth control is not abortion. I’ve seen, in mainstream media, some improvement when it comes to reporters using the word “belief” to describe the claim that the pill or intrauterine device (IUD) is an “abortifacient.” This is a good first step. But for audience clarity, reporters need to be clear that this “belief” is 100 percent not true. “Hobby Lobby’s owners wrongly believe that emergency contraception is an abortifacient; in fact, emergency contraception works by preventing pregnancy through suppressed ovulation,” is a helpful sentence that will help audiences gain clarity.

4. Non-procreative sex is normal behavior in the United States. In every story about the battle over contraception access, it is important to put the battle into context. Here are two facts that should be in most—and ideally all—stories reporting on anti-contraception activism: 99 percent of Americans have sex in their adult lives, and 99 percent of women who have heterosexual intercourse have used contraception.

Here are some more stats, if you really want your audience to understand what, exactly, anti-contraception forces are attacking: The chance of pregnancy in a given year if you don’t use contraception is 85 percent. Married women use more contraception than single women, with 77 percent of married women using contraception and only 42 percent of never-married women using contraception.

People who paint contraception use as a weird, esoteric hobby instead of mainstream health care to address a normal part of everyday life are on the wrong side of science.

5. Abortion is also very common. Audiences should never be allowed to assume abortion is rare or something that only “some kinds” of women seek out. Three in ten women will have an abortion in her lifetime. One in five pregnancies end in abortion. A little over one in 60 women of reproductive age has an abortion every year. That abortion is a normal part of health care is a fact, not something up for debate. While not every story about abortion needs these stats in it, they should still be used regularly to prevent any confusion about what, exactly, is being debated here.

None of these scientific facts should be construed in any way as a slight against the value of impartiality. (After all, many anti-choicers know most of this and somehow haven’t changed their minds.) Indeed, part of the problem with the “debate” as it stands is there is so much conflict over facts that the actual philosophical arguments aren’t being heard. While it’s understandable that anti-choicers might chafe when put in a position where they have to trot out their real objections to widespread contraception use instead of spouting blatant lies about “abortifacients,” true impartiality requires not allowing one side to put their thumb on the scale by lying. More importantly, as the media is supposed to be there to help ordinary citizens understand the issues and how they affect them, having a clear picture of what is at stake in these debates over reproductive health care is critical.

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