Part 1 of 3

By K.J. Farrell

The argument that the media discriminates against the anti-abortion movement is alarming. Those who value the first amendment want open and robust discourse on all perspectives of important issues, particularly those that profoundly impact public policy, like abortion.

Does media discriminate against the anti-abortion movement? This three-part series will address the basis of the claims, and conclude by illustrating bias that clearly does exist – just not necessarily how people on either side of the abortion issue might think.

Hopefully this series will motivate people towards more thoughtfulness about how they regard media bias in the future.

The Numbers Game

NumbersOne of the more interesting facets of the anti-abortion discrimination claims over the years involves numbers. The numbers that attended a march or rally. The number of buses with church insignia. The number of counter protests and of their participants. The number of children counted as participants.

The Washington Post, nor any other major news source, provided a count of the participants at the 1/22/2014 annual anti-abortion event to protest Roe v. Wade. Multiple online searches revealed coverage of the protest and companion events elsewhere, none with an attendance figure for Washington, DC.

Columnist Dana Milbank estimated that about 25,000 attended – a dramatic decrease from last year, attributable at least in part to the frigid temperatures. (On that note, Milbank’s reminds readers of “religious conservatives” requesting prayers for rain to hit President Obama’s nomination acceptance event in 2008, believing that “…hurricanes, earthquakes and other meteorological phenomena were divine punishment of wayward humans.”)

Why do numbers mean so much to the anti-abortion crowd? Over 20 years ago when survey data was interpreted as evidence of media bias favoring the pro-choice position, most news organizations took notice and established policies for abortion-related coverage. Anti-abortion organizations insist that the bias continues, including deflating attendance figures. They now assert bias each time the media reporting is not in sync with their independent data, whatever it involves.

What can be concluded from the lack of an attendance figure in the coverage of the 1/22/14 event? The coverage itself will be addressed in the next post – attendance is the issue for now.

So disconcerting the claims of discrimination have been, if an official government agency does not provide a count for abortion-related events, news organizations avoid estimating. No editor wants to be inundated with email or phone “trees”, usually organized by churches, requesting corrections.

Let’s be realistic for a moment. No matter the issue or event, organizers and participants always want an image of large attendance. It is energizing and motivating. When turnout is less than expected or promoted, it can be demoralizing. But, media cannot be blamed for a poor turnout or using the official figure provided by a legitimate agency.  They likely excluded an attendance figure for the 1/22/14 protest because they did not have one or, if Milbank was correct, media did not want to prompt unproductive calls if offense was taken at a generic statement about the decrease. Protest supporters publicized a count of “hundreds of thousands” although conservative stated that a crowd count was not done, which is a first. Numbers truly provoke sensitivity.

Demographic numbers can draw anti-abortion ire. When the public reads, “…at least 50% of the marchers [were] under 18, as busloads of Catholic school kids descend on the capitol…” (CNN), followed by reports that many are home-schooled and have flexibility to attend, or that students from religious colleges coalesced for bus trips to DC, it affects perceptions about crowd size and the true level of support. Anti-abortion leaders argue that the large number of youth leads to dedicated adults later. Maybe. Maybe not.  Many children will grow up and disagree with their parents about abortion just as many church parishioners will later join churches that support reproductive rights for women.

JesusReference to high numbers of elderly, low numbers of minorities, and the dominant numbers of clergy also offends. Anti-abortion lobbyists insist that their position is aligned with the overwhelming majority of Americans no matter their social, ethnic, religious, economic, educational, or generational status. While they do not deny religious affiliations, the contributions religious leaders make to mobilizing for the issue are not always highlighted.  To do so would acknowledge that the anti-abortion movement is indeed steeped in specific religious values, not every day American sentiment. Reports and photos of anti-abortion event participants contradict their claims.

Finally, anti-abortion organizations look at the numbers of column inches or minutes of air time given to events or views. Although the 1/22/14 protest in DC was covered by all major news sources, there was still complaint. Apparently the extremely frigid weather was not as newsworthy as the same protest that has taken place on the same date each year in the same place.

While numbers may have meaning to the anti-abortion movement, news resources are allocated to that which is newsworthy. It is highly improbable that editors and producers conspire to discriminate against the anti-abortion movement. After 41 years of protests against Roe v. Wade, media rarely comes across a new angle. The models of fetuses might be higher tech and there may be new messaging and image strategies. Neither adds newsworthy content.

The one number that has changed dramatically concerns legislative initiatives taking place in the states. You can believe that the anti-abortion movement is keeping track. Should the pro-choice movement match the count with their own initiatives?