STUDY: How Cable News Talks About Abortion

Anti-Choice Speakers And Misinformation Dominate Abortion Coverage On Evening Cable News

››› ››› RACHEL LARRIS & SHARON KANN

A Media Matters study of 14 months of evening cable news programs found that discussions of abortion were weighted toward anti-choice speakers, which resulted in widespread misinformation on the topic. Of the three networks, Fox News aired the largest number of inaccurate statements about the most prevalent abortion-related myths, and MSNBC was the most accurate.

Evening Cable News Coverage Of Reproductive Rights

Media Matters analyzed evening and prime-time news programs on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC from January 1, 2015, through March 6, 2016, for segments featuring a substantial discussion of abortion or organizations that support or discourage reproductive rights. All speakers in these segments were labeled based on whether they had publicly identified as either pro-choice or anti-choice or had not publicly identified as either. Media Matters then coded all statements made by participants within these segments, noting whether the speaker made a statement that contained one of four types of abortion-related misinformation most prevalent in the study period, or whether the speaker made a statement that contained accurate information about the same four types of misinformation.

An additional analysis was compiled on whether speakers who had not publicly identified as pro-choice or anti-choice had “consistently” or “mostly” made accurate or inaccurate statements about one of the four types of misinformation. A minimum of 10 statements was required to be considered for this secondary analysis. An accurate statement on one of the four types of misinformation is referred to as a “pro-choice statement” and an inaccurate one is referred to as an “anti-choice statement” throughout the study. Segments were also reviewed for any references to an economic hardship in obtaining an abortion and any references to incidents of violence, threats, or harassment directed at abortion clinics or providers.

Media Matters analyzed the following four abortion-related misinformation claims:

1) Government funds given to Planned Parenthood through Medicaid are illegally used to pay for abortions;

2) Birth control acts as an abortifacient;

3) Planned Parenthood “harvests” or “sells” or is “profiting” from fetal tissue; and

4) The Center for Medical Progress’ work or videos are “journalism” or fair depictions.

Key Findings

All findings about statements relate to the four abortion-related misinformation claims on qualifying segments:

  • 705 statements containing inaccurate abortion-related information aired on Fox News;
  • 158 statements containing accurate abortion-related information aired on Fox News;
  • 70 percent of Fox News appearances* were by people -- including hosts, correspondents, and guests -- who either identify as anti-choice or who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements;
  • CNN had three times the number of anti-choice guest appearances as pro-choice;
  • 49 percent of MSNBC appearances were by people -- including hosts, correspondents, and guests -- who either identify as pro-choice or who consistently or mostly made pro-choice statements;
  • 6 percent of MSNBC appearances were by people -- including hosts, correspondents, and guests -- who either identify as anti-choice or who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements;
  • 40 percent of all appearances on all three networks were made by people who either identify as anti-choice or who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements;
  • 17 percent of all appearances on all three networks were made by people who either identify as pro-choice or consistently or mostly made pro-choice statements;
  • 62 percent of all appearances on all networks -- including hosts, correspondents, and guests -- were male; and
  • There was one appearance by a group that represents and advocates for reproductive rights for women of color.

* We identified 1,554 appearances in qualifying segments made by 432 individuals over the course of study.

Evening Cable News Features More Appearances By Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice People

​With The Exception Of MSNBC, Anti-Choice Appearances Overwhelmed Cable News Segments Where Abortion-Related Topics Were Discussed

688 Segments, 1,554 Appearances, 432 Individuals. Overall, Media Matters identified and analyzed 688 evening news segments featuring substantial discussion of abortion, including host monologues, news reports, news packages, interviews, and panel segments. There were 1,554 appearances made by 432 individuals in these segments, with an overall greater percentage of appearances made by those who identified as anti-choice or consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements.

 


Fox News Had More Identified Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice Appearances.
On Fox News, the disparity between appearances by anti-choice people and pro-choice people was quite large: There were 284 appearances by identified anti-choice people compared to 29 appearances by identified pro-choice people.

Seventy Percent Of Those Who Appeared On Fox News To Discuss Abortion Either Identified As Anti-Choice Or Consistently Or Mostly Made Anti-Choice Statements. After analyzing appearances by people who identify as either pro-choice or anti-choice, Media Matters ran a secondary analysis on those without an identified position. In addition to including more appearances by people who identified as anti-choice, Fox News also included a substantial number of appearances by people who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements. All combined on Fox News, 70 percent of people discussing abortion-related topics either identify as anti-choice or consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements.

CNN Had More Identified Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice Appearances. Media Matters identified 138 segments on CNN evening news programs featuring a substantial discussion about abortion. In those segments there were 47 appearances by people who identified as anti-choice compared to 18 appearances by people who identified as pro-choice, all of whom were guests. There were no people without an identified position who either consistently or mostly cited pro- or anti-choice statements on CNN, as determined by the secondary analysis.

MSNBC Was The Only Network With More Pro-Choice Than Anti-Choice Appearances In Segments About Reproductive Rights. Media Matters identified 183 segments on MSNBC evening programs featuring a substantial discussion about abortion. In those segments, 45 percent of appearances had no pro- or anti-choice identification while 49 percent had either identified as pro-choice or consistently or mostly made pro-choice statements, and 6 percent had either identified as anti-choice or consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements.

Fox And CNN Also Featured More Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice Appearances By Guests

Fox News Had Far More Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice Guest Appearances. Guests who identified as anti-choice or who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements comprised 54 percent of panel and interview appearances (199) while guests who identified as pro-choice or who consistently or mostly made pro-choice statements comprised 10 percent (36 appearances). Guests with no pro- or anti-choice identification and who did not consistently or mostly make pro- or anti-choice statements made up the remaining 36 percent of panel and interview appearances (135).

CNN Also Had More Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice Guest Appearances. Guests who identified as anti-choice or who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements comprised 30 percent of panel and interview appearances (47) while guests who identified as pro-choice or who consistently or mostly made pro-choice statements comprised 12 percent (18 appearances). Guests with no pro- or anti-choice identification and who did not consistently or mostly make pro- or anti-choice statements made up the remaining 58 percent of panel and interview appearances (91).

MSNBC Had More Pro-Choice Than Anti-Choice Guest Appearances. Guests who identified as pro-choice or who consistently or mostly made pro-choice statements comprised 39 percent of panel and interview appearances (91) while guests who identified as anti-choice or who consistently or mostly made anti-choice statements comprised 10 percent (24 appearances) and guests with no pro- or anti-choice identification and who did not consistently or mostly make pro- or anti-choice statements made up the remaining 51 percent (118 appearances).

More Men Than Women Were Involved In Cable News Segments Featuring A Substantial Discussion About Abortion-Related Topics

In Evening Cable News Segments About Abortion-Related Topics, More Men Appear Than Women. In the news segments that Media Matters analyzed we found that more men than women made appearances on all three networks. These tallies include show hosts, network correspondents, and guests who appeared on the programs. Fox had the largest gender imbalance, and CNN had the smallest. On Fox News, men made up 66 percent of appearances (521) while women comprised 34 percent (271 appearances). On MSNBC, men made up 59 percent of appearances (250) while women comprised 41 percent (176 appearances). On CNN, men made up 56 percent of appearances (188) while women comprised 44 percent (148 appearances).

On CNN And Fox, More Men Than Women Made Guest Appearances. Media Matters found CNN and Fox News had more guest appearances by men than women on abortion-related subjects, while MSNBC’s guest appearances were nearly equally balanced between men and women. On Fox News, men comprised 63 percent of guest appearances and women comprised 37 percent of guest appearances. On CNN, men comprised 65 percent of guests and women comprised 35 percent. On MSNBC, men comprised 51 percent of guests and women comprised 49 percent.

 

Groups That Are Dedicated To Reproductive Rights For Women Of Color Almost Completely Absent From Evening Cable News

There Was Only One Appearance By A Group Devoted To Reproductive Rights For Women Of Color. The November 30 edition of All In With Chris Hayes featured a panel discussion that included Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health. This was the only appearance by a guest from a reproductive rights organization devoted to women of color during evening cable news program segments discussing reproductive rights that aired from January 1, 2015, to March 6, 2016.

Speakers On Cable News Pushed Misinformation About Reproductive Rights And Often Weren’t Corrected

Misinformation About Abortion, Planned Parenthood, And The Center For Medical Progress Went Overwhelmingly Uncorrected On Fox News

Fox Aired Far More Statements Containing Abortion-Related Misinformation Than Accurate Information. Media Matters analyzed Fox News for four types of misinformation about abortion, Planned Parenthood, and the Center for Medical Progress. Fox evening news programs aired 863 statements containing either misinformation or accurate information about these topics, of which 82 percent (705) contained misinformation and 18 percent (158) contained accurate information. Fox evening news programs contributed 89 percent of all misinformation statements in the entire study.

On Fox News, Hannity And The O’Reilly Factor Had The Largest Imbalance Of Misinformation To Accurate Information. Of the five Fox News programs studied, Hannity had the largest imbalance of misinformation to accurate information, airing 243 inaccurate statements, compared to 29 accurate statements about the same topics. The O’Reilly Factor aired 171 inaccurate statements and 22 accurate statements. The Kelly File aired 139 inaccurate statements and 59 accurate statements. Special Report with Bret Baier aired 110 inaccurate statements and 37 accurate statements. On The Record With Greta Van Susteren aired 10 inaccurate statements and four accurate statements.

Misinformation Specifically About Planned Parenthood And The Center For Medical Progress Went Overwhelmingly Uncorrected On Fox News. Media Matters searched Fox News evening programs’ transcripts for statements that Planned Parenthood “sells” or “harvests” or “profits” from fetal tissue and statements that Planned Parenthood does not. From January 1, 2015, to March 6, 2016, Fox News evening programs aired 336 statements that Planned Parenthood was conducting such activity and 55 statements that Planned Parenthood was not. Media Matters also counted statements that the Center For Medical Progress’ videos or work was “journalism” or fair depictions. Fox News aired 339 statements to this effect and 84 statements or claims that CMP’s work or videos were neither.

Fox Aired Nearly Two Dozen Claims That Planned Parenthood Illegally Uses Government Funding. Media Matters analyzed evening cable news programs for statements that government funding given to Planned Parenthood is used to pay for abortions outside of limited, legally permissible situations. Statements were also included if a speaker stated that because “money is fungible,” government funds given to Planned Parenthood constitute support for the abortion services the organization provides. Media Matters also counted when a speaker accurately stated that this illegal funding is not occurring or that laws make this spending impermissible. All inaccurate statements about this topic occurred on Fox News. Fox News aired 23 statements that Planned Parenthood uses government funding to pay for abortions and 18 statements that it does not, although the balance of statements varied by program. The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity both aired eight statements that Planned Parenthood does this and three that it does not. Special Report with Bret Baier aired one statement that Planned Parenthood uses government funding to pay for abortions and one statement that it does not. On Fox News, only The Kelly File aired more statements that Planned Parenthood does not use government money this way or that it is not legal than statements to the contrary. On The Record With Greta Van Susteren did not air any statements on this topic.

CNN Slanted Toward Misinformation On Abortion-Related Topics

CNN Aired More Statements Containing Abortion-Related Misinformation Than Accurate Ones. CNN's evening programs aired 54 inaccurate statements about the four topics and 43 accurate statements. CNN’s shows were mostly balanced in the number of statements or claims containing misinformation versus those containing accurate statements about the same topics, with the exception of Erin Burnett Outfront.

MSNBC Was The Only Cable News Network To Air More Accurate Abortion-Related Statements

All Evening MSNBC Shows Aired More Statements Containing Accurate Than Inaccurate Information. All evening MSNBC shows examined contained more accurate statements about the four types of misinformation than inaccurate ones. Overall, MSNBC aired 87 accurate statements compared to 37 statements containing misinformation about abortion, Planned Parenthood, or the Center for Medical Progress.

On Both MSNBC And Fox, Statements Or Claims That Birth Control Acts As An Abortifacient Were Not Challenged Or Corrected

Statements That Types Of Birth Control Act As Abortifacients Went Unchallenged On MSNBC And Fox. Media Matters analyzed evening cable news programs for statements or claims that some types of birth control act as abortifacients, while also counting any statements or claims about the science of such claims. Fox News aired seven statements or claims that birth control acts as an abortifacient, and MSNBC aired four such statements in the course of the study. No speaker in those segments challenged those inaccurate statements or discussed the medical community’s consensus that these types of birth control are not equivalent to an abortion.

Across the Networks, Anti-Choice Speakers Pushed Far More Misinformation Than Pro-Choice Speakers Did

Far More Anti-Choice Than Pro-Choice Speakers Were Responsible For Abortion-Related Misinformation. Over all three networks, Media Matters identified 796 statements over the studied 14-month period containing misinformation and 288 statements containing accurate statements about the same topics. People who identified as anti-choice or who mostly or consistently cited anti-choice statements were responsible for 61 percent of inaccurate statements about one of the four types of misinformation as compared to 3 percent from those who identified as pro-choice or who mostly or consistently cited pro-choice statements.

Two Important Reproductive Rights Issues Were Almost Entirely Ignored On Evening Cable News

Economic Hardships And Targeted Violence Ignored

There Were Almost No Mentions About Economic Hardship Impeding Abortion Access. In the 14 months of evening cable news coverage we analyzed, we found only eight segments where there was at least one reference to an economic hardship faced in obtaining an abortion. All of these segments aired on MSNBC. In most of these segments, there was only a single sentence that referenced an economic hardship faced in obtaining an abortion.

Most Discussions About Violence Occurred After The Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood Shooting. Media Matters analyzed all segments to see if any speaker in a segment made at least one reference to incidents of violence, threats, or harassment directed at abortion clinics or providers. Over all three networks, we found 148 segments where at least one speaker made at least one reference to an incident of violence. However, 94 percent of those segments aired after November 27, 2015, the night Robert Lewis Dear Jr. allegedly killed three people and wounded nine others in an attack on a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood affiliate. Only nine segments disscussed the topic prior to November 27 and most of these segments were on MSNBC, which aired seven segments prior to the shooting, including segments on November 24 and 25, and an additional 21 segments after the shooting. Fox News aired two segments with a reference to violence prior to the shooting. CNN aired no segments with any such references until November 27. CNN had 60 segments overall with at least one reference to violence occurring at a Planned Parenthood facility; 49 of those segments aired on November 27, and the remaining 11 aired after that date. Fox News had 23 segments airing on November 27 and an additional 16 that aired after the shooting occurred.

Methodology

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts for evening programming on cable news from January 1, 2015, through March 6, 2016. We included the following programs in the data: CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett Outfront, Anderson Cooper 360, This is Life with Lisa Ling, and CNN Tonight with Don Lemon; MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell; Fox News Channel's Special Report with Bret Baier, On The Record with Greta Van Susteren, The O’Reilly Factor, The Kelly File, and Hannity. We included in the data a Fox News special, The Hidden Harvest, which aired during the regular evening broadcast period we studied. We did not include Fox News’ The Five in the study because of the show's substantially different format and because it rarely has guests. On November 27, 2015, all three networks interrupted their regular programming to cover a breaking news event involving a shooting at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood affiliate. Some evening news programs’ coverage on that day from 5 to 11 p.m. were not available in Nexis transcripts, so we reviewed any gaps in iQ media for study-related segments. We ultimately used iQ media to review MSNBC from 5 to 11 p.m. and Fox News’ Special Report With Bret Baier on November 27. For shows that air reruns, we included only the first airing in the data retrieval.

For this study, Media Matters included only those segments where the stated topic of discussion was abortion or organizations that support or discourage reproductive rights, or where the discussion contained "substantial discussion" about abortion or organizations that support or discourage reproductive rights. We identified four types of segments: a host monologue, a news package or news report, a panel discussion, or an interview. An interview segment could be live or pre-taped but had to be shown in full. We defined “substantial discussion” as one where two or more speakers had at least one direct exchange on abortion or organizations that support or discourage reproductive rights. We did not include teasers for upcoming segments. We did not include statements made in news or video clips in edited news packages except those made by a network host or correspondent. The study counted people by the number of appearances made in qualifying segments, and appearances were counted only once per segment.

In determining who was a “guest” on a program, we eliminated segments coded as “host monologues” and “news packages or news reports” and counted only segments identified as “panels” or "interviews." In those segments, we removed the show host from consideration and tallied the remaining participants. In some interview segments, a network correspondent, rather than the show’s host, conducted the interview. In those segments, the network correspondent was included as part of the "guest" tallies.

We coded all participants in a qualifying segment by name; gender; profession; party affiliation (if known); and self-identification as either pro-choice, anti-choice, or no known position. Position on choice was determined by either a person’s stated self-identification, their work for an organization with a stated mission in support of or in opposition to reproductive rights, or their participation in an explicit action in support of a pro-choice or anti-choice organization or cause. We did not use a person’s statements on whether abortion is good or bad in determining self-identification, and we classified “pro-life” as “anti-choice.” To determine someone’s pro- or anti-choice designation, we reviewed Tweets, Nexis transcripts, and Google results. While we could not always review a person’s entire history of written or spoken materials on the topic of abortion, we made a good faith effort to determine if any such self-identification could be found.

We coded all statements in all segments for the presence of any one of four identified types of abortion-related misinformation or one of four factual statements about the same topics. A “statement” is defined as a complete sentence. For a statement to qualify, it did not have to include the speaker’s endorsement of the information. A single statement could be coded for multiple claims. Two coders reviewed all statements in the study and had to agree on their inclusion in the final tally.

Statements were examined for when a speaker in a segment made a statement or cited a claim that:

  • Government funds given to Planned Parenthood 1) are used to pay for abortions outside of legally permissible exceptions to Medicaid funding or 2) aren’t or cannot be used to pay for abortions outside of legally permissible exceptions to Medicaid funding.
  • Certain birth control 1) acts as an abortifacient or 2) does not act as an abortifacient.
  • Planned Parenthood 1) “harvests” or “sells” fetal tissue or “baby body parts” or is “profiting” from fetal tissue or 2) does not “harvest” or “sell” fetal tissue or “baby body parts” or is not “profiting” from fetal tissue.
  • The Center for Medical Progress’ work or videos 1) are “journalism,” the work of “citizen journalists,” “investigative journalism,” “sting videos,” or represent factual depictions of Planned Parenthood or of the conversations presented on the tapes or 2) aren’t "journalism," the work of “citizen journalists,” “investigative journalism,” “sting videos,” or do not represent factual depictions of Planned Parenthood or of the conversations presented on the tapes.

For those individuals for whom we could not satisfactorily determine position on choice through either self-identification or association with an organization with a stated mission on reproductive rights and whom we subsequently coded as “no known position,” we ran a secondary analysis on their statements about the four topics of abortion-related misinformation to determine if they were “consistently” pro-choice or anti-choice, “mostly” pro-choice or anti-choice, or “mixed.” We set a threshold of at least 10 statements in our study for an individual to be considered for this secondary analysis. Using the four types of misinformation as anti-choice statements and the four factual statements as pro-choice statements, we summed the total number of pro-choice (negative) and anti-choice (positive) statements to provide a score using this formula:

Score = (Number of anti-choice statements / Total number of statements) + -(Number of pro-choice statements / Total number of statements)

A negative score signified a pro-choice position while a positive score signified an anti-choice position. Scores of 0 to 30 percent were coded as “mixed,” scores of 31 to 70 percent were coded as “mostly,” and scores of 71 to 100 percent were coded as “consistently.” Individuals coded as “mixed” were left as “no known position.” Individuals who scored as “mostly” or “consistently” were grouped with the corresponding individuals who either self-identified or held an association with a relevant organization.

Segments were also coded for the presence of two types of discussions: 1) If any speaker in a segment referenced violence, threats or harassment directed at an abortion clinic or provider or 2) if any speaker in a segment referenced an economic hardship faced in obtaining abortion access. For this analysis, segments were coded only once if a statement was found present and not for multiple references within the same segment.

Rob Savillo assisted in the development of this study. Charts by Sarah Wasko.

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