Media Bias, Abortion, and the other 80%

Ross Douthat:

In the most recent Gallup poll on abortion, as many Americans described themselves as pro-life as called themselves pro-choice. A combined 58 percent of Americans stated that abortion should either be “illegal in all circumstances” or “legal in only a few circumstances.” These results do not vary appreciably by gender: in the first Gallup poll to show a slight pro-life majority, conducted in May 2009, half of American women described themselves as pro-life.
But if you’ve followed the media frenzy surrounding the Susan G. Komen for the Cure foundation’s decision — which it backpedaled from, with an apology, after a wave of frankly brutal coverage — to discontinue about $700,000 in funding for Planned Parenthood, you would think all these millions of anti-abortion Americans simply do not exist….Conservative complaints about media bias are sometimes overdrawn. But on the abortion issue, the press’s prejudices are often absolute, its biases blatant and its blinders impenetrable.

I have no idea if media coverage of abortion is biased towards a pro-choice perspective.  It plausibly could be, but there’s no systematic evidence that I know of. And Douthat’s confident assertions certainly don’t provide any.  Indeed, his assertions seem mainly to illustrate this passage from David Niven’s 2002 article on media bias:

Studies focused on the issues of abortion and homelessness, for example, have found that the media adopt a liberal perspective for understanding and framing issues. Similarly, though, other scholars have used the issues of abortion and hunger to show that the media have a conservative mindset in presenting the issues. Often these studies hinge on examples the authors find disappointing or distressing, rather than on presentations of falsifiable evidence. Indeed, in assessing much of the work measuring bias in issue coverage, it is difficult to weigh the data because there is no baseline established or asserted to define what the presence of fair coverage might look like.

Emphasis mine.

But the bigger problem is Douthat’s characterization of public opinion.  As I’ve argued before, one cannot divide the public into “pro-life” and “pro-choice” camps based on the kinds of survey questions he cites.  These questions fail to capture the true complexity and the ambivalence in most Americans’ attitudes toward abortion.  Most Americans approve of abortion in certain cases and oppose it in others.  Juxtapose, for example, abortion in the case of rape with abortion for the purpose of sex selection.  At best, a small minority—perhaps 20% but likely smaller—would approve of or oppose abortion in every case.

If media coverage ignores some Americans, it’s not because it focuses on a pro-choice perspective but because it focuses on the perspectives of both pro-life and pro-choice activists—neither of whom represents the vast majority of Americans.


6 Responses to Media Bias, Abortion, and the other 80%

  1. Andy Rudalevige February 6, 2012 at 11:18 am #

    The General Social Survey (GSS) data support the idea that Americans’ view of abortion are more nuanced than a simple “pro-choice”/”pro-life” divide suggests. A very simple take on the GSS’ 2000-2010 cumulative data (n= just under 8000; see suggests they are both, depending on the circumstances.

    Percentages agreeing that “abortion is OK” when…

    … the pregnancy “seriously endangers” the health of the mother: 88%
    … the pregnancy was caused by rape: 78%
    … there is a “strong chance of a serious defect” in the baby: 75%

    … a married couple doesn’t want more children: 42%
    … a low-income mother doesn’t want more children: 42%
    … a mother is not married and doesn’t want children: 40%

    Again, these data cover the 2000-10 surveys; a very quick glance at the 1990s figures does suggest small declines in positive responses to the latter three questions at least.

  2. Michael Tesler February 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm #

    As for systematic evidence of media bias on abortion coverage, I think the most convincing chapter in Groseclose’s book is his treatment of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. Media outlets, he shows, overwhelmingly opted for the preferred liberal language of “late-term abortion” despite the fact that that the preferred conservative term of “partial birth abortion” is actually in the title of the bill that passed through Congress by a wide margin.

    • reflectionephemeral February 6, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

      “Partial birth abortion” was a term created and used by a political party to build support for its views. It’s not a medical term. There’s no reason to take it as the neutral, correct label.

      media coverage … focuses on the perspectives of both pro-life and pro-choice activists—neither of whom represents the vast majority of Americans.

      It seems to me that it’s fair to say that majorities of Americans are “pro-choice”, given Andy Rudalevige’s data, unless I am misreading, and the 60 percent or so who say that “abortion is not OK” in those scenarios want to see criminal punishments imposed to prevent people from making those decisions. I’d tell a pollster that it is not OK to cheat on your spouse, but I don’t support jailing cheaters, either.

      • John Sides February 6, 2012 at 2:35 pm #

        Reflectionephemeral: You need to click through to my analysis, which looks at the same data that Andy R. does but also some additional data. That will show you how there is no pro-choice majority at all — at least if “pro-choice” means that “women should have the choice about whether to have an abortion, no matter what the circumstances.”

        • reflectionephemeral February 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

          Thanks– I see that only around 40% say that they believe that “a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice.” I’m not sure if that’s the consensus view of what “pro-choice” people believe, but that’s the larger issue here, as your quote from Marc Ambinder makes clear: ““The abortion debate in America is about policy, not about those words”.

          • John Sides February 6, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

            My point is that many if not most of those who say “always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice” would say that they do not support abortion in cases of sex selection. That 40% is soft.