Reproductive rights have long been an issue that is front and center of presidential campaigns and social debates. Now with the Supreme Court currently investigating the case of Whole Woman’s Health vs. Cole, which some say will be the most influential abortion case since 1992, women’s health issues are more widely discussed than ever. However, not all reproductive rights coverage is created equal.
The Women’s Media Center recently released a report exploring the difference in coverage of reproductive rights by male reporters and female reporters, based on data demonstrating that 52% of stories on the topic are written by men, while 37% are written by women. The study looked at articles published between August 2014 and July 2015 by twelve of the most widely circulated newspapers in the country.
Not only did the report address the discrepancy in bylines, but also the common trend of male reporters more frequently citing other men as sources. Overall, 41% of quotes in articles about reproductive issues were found to be from men, while 33% were from women. Although the gendered difference in byline and quote counts is reflective of the general statistics across news topics, the author of the report, Jill Filipovic, explains that with an issue so closely linked to women’s lives, it becomes necessary to hear not just from men and women equally, but to get a majority of women’s voices.
Women’s Media Center’s Director of Communications, Cristal Williams Chancellor, agreed, saying in an email, “women’s voices, experiences and perspectives must be given greater priority and should mirror the population whose lives are often shaped by reproductive health issues.”
Filipovic acknowledged that the topic of reproductive health in general does include men, but the majority of laws in place around the issue have a much greater effect on women and women’s bodies. For this reason, women are better equipped to speak about the lived experience of contraception, pregnancy, and abortion as they relate to standard health care, while men tend to approach reproductive rights from a political standpoint. According to the data examined in the study, the majority of those stories framed through a political lens dealt with funding for reproductive health services and political candidates’ stances on the issues.
Filipovic explained the problem with this approach, particularly given that the majority of reproductive rights stories are written by men. She writes, “covering abortion and contraception purely as political issues, rather than normal parts of life for millions of women, may contribute to the stubbornness of the political debate, the hostility women and abortion providers face, and the continued treatment of reproduction as more about politics than about health—all of which leads to further political encroachments on a range of reproductive freedoms.”
The public perception of abortion is also impacted enormously by a disproportionate reporting of the rare instances of extreme, negative cases rather than the many positive and proactive movements made by reproductive rights activists.
Megan Amundson, the Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, discussed the tendency for the media to portray abortion as a hugely polarizing issue when in reality seven in ten of those polled by the organization supported abortion.
“Having a political frame be a much stronger frame, it makes the public forget that it is actually a health care issue,” Amundson said. “The challenges of accessing abortion are completely drowned out because of this false dynamic of controversy.”
Among her recommendations for more accurate and nuanced coverage of reproductive rights, Filipovic suggested diversifying news staffs, centering women’s voices, and cultivating expertise, so readers have access to more articles that move beyond surface level coverage into some of the deeper complexities of women’s health care. Part of that process starts with editors making a conscious effort to train a diverse staff in covering these issues in a way that adequately portrays the experiences of those who are most affected by the legislation.
Chancellor is optimistic about the future of reproductive health coverage, stating in an email, “as editors become more aware of the disparities and make a commitment to implement the required changes that more accurately and credibly reflect their audiences, news coverage will improve and better reflect the opinions, lives and realities of women.”
Rebecca Sirull is a communications student at Northeastern University.