Cable News Keeps Getting It Wrong About Abortion – Media Matters for America

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Key Findings From 12 Months Of Evening Cable News Coverage Of Abortion And Reproductive Rights

Media Matters analyzed evening cable news programs on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC from March 7, 2016, through March 1, 2017, for segments featuring a substantial discussion of abortion or reproductive rights. The resulting 354 segments were then coded for the mention of one or more of six general topics of conversation: the election, legal issues, religion, anti-choice violence, economic and logistical barriers to abortion access, and state-based legislation. Segments were also coded for the number of accurate or inaccurate statements each speaker made about three topics: the discredited anti-choice group Center for Medical Progress (CMP), Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortion.

Based on this analysis, Media Matters identified the follow key findings and coverage patterns about abortion and reproductive rights:

Across All Networks, 60 Percent Of Guests, Hosts, And Correspondents Were Male. Through 12 months of coverage, Media Matters identified 316 unique speakers across 354 total segments on abortion and reproductive rights. During the study period, men made 598 appearances and women made 394 appearances — meaning that across all networks, women represented only 40 percent of the participants in conversations about abortion while men constituted approximately 60 percent. Although 40 percent of the overall speakers were female, only 73 of the 354 host appearances were made by women — a mere 20 percent of the pool.

CNN Featured More Men (58 Percent) Than Women Speaking About Abortion and Reproductive Rights. During the 12-month study period, CNN’s coverage of abortion and reproductive rights was dominated by men, who made 261 appearances compared to only 190 appearances by women. On Erin Burnett OutFront — the only program with a female host — only 36 percent of appearances were made by men. In contrast, men made up the majority of appearances on The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer (59 percent), Anderson Cooper 360 (64 percent), and CNN Tonight (60 percent).

Fox News Featured More Men (68 Percent) Than Women Talking About Abortion and Reproductive Rights. Fox News’ coverage of abortion and reproductive rights was dominated by men, who made up 68 percent of speakers. Throughout the 12-month study period, Fox programs featured 186 appearances by men and only 88 appearances by women. Most notably, programs hosted by men had more male participants in conversations about reproductive rights than those hosted by women did. Men made up more than 70 percent of appearances on segments aired during Special Report with Bret Baier (78 percent), The O’Reilly Factor (71 percent), and Hannity (76 percent). The male-hosted programs that were added to the Fox lineup after the election, On The Record with Brit Hume and Tucker Carlson Tonight, continued the trend and featured more male appearances than female (100 percent and 80 percent, respectively).

MSNBC Featured More Men (57 Percent) Than Women Discussing Abortion And Reproductive Rights. With the exception of The Rachel Maddow Show, which had only four appearances by a man (10 percent of appearances) and For The Record with Greta, which had only one appearance by a man (25 percent of appearances), all other MSNBC evening cable programs were skewed toward male appearances. On Hardball with Chris Matthews, men made up 67 percent of appearances, while MTP Daily relied on men for coverage of abortion and reproductive rights topics in 78 percent of appearances. Sixty-five percent of appearances on All In with Chris Hayes were made by men, while 59 percent were made by men during The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

Across All Networks, 64 Percent Of Statements About Four Topics Related To Abortion Or Reproductive Rights Were Inaccurate. Media Matters determined that 64 percent of the statements on evening cable news contained inaccurate information about the Center for Medical Progress, abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, or late-term abortion. Out of 326 total statement codes, 209 were coded as inaccurate, while only 117 were coded as accurate.

On CNN Programs, 38 Percent Of Statements About Four Topics Replated To Abortion Or Reproductive Rights Contained Inaccurate Information. Out of the three networks, CNN aired the fewest inaccurate statements (38 percent) about CMP, abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortion. Out of 77 total statements made on CNN, 29 were inaccurate and 48 were accurate.

On Fox News, 80 Percent Of Statements About Four Topics Related To Abortion Or Reproductive Rights Were Inaccurate. Although the amount of inaccurate information about abortion and reproductive rights was high across all networks, Fox News stood out as the most frequent platform for misinformation. Media Matters found that 80 percent of statements about CMP, abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortion on Fox News programs were inaccurate. Out of 191 total statement codes for the network, 153 were deemed inaccurate while merely 48 communicated accurate information. Notably, Fox’s Hannity and Tucker Carlson Tonight contained exclusively inaccurate statements about abortion or reproductive rights, with 31 inaccurate statements and seven inaccurate statements, respectively.

On MSNBC, 47 Percent Of Statements About Four Topics Related To Abortion And Reproductive Rights Were Inaccurate. Although MSNBC did not contain as much inaccurate information as Fox News, the network’s information on CMP, abortion funding rules, Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortions was still 47 percent inaccurate. Out of 58 total statements in 12 months, 31 were accurate while 27 were determined to be inaccurate. Hardball with Chris Matthews was responsible for 21 of the 27 total inaccurate statements at the network. 60 percent of the statements on Hardball were inaccurate. 

Abortion Was Most Commonly Discussed In The Context Of The Election. Although abortion and reproductive rights were discussed in other contexts, the issues were most frequently covered, at every network, in the context of the 2016 election. Out of 354 total segments, 286 included discussion of one or more candidates’ stances on abortion access — meaning 81 percent of substantive conversations about the topic included discussion of the election.

Coverage Of Trump’s Position On Abortion Was The Most Frequent Election-Related Conversation. While 61 percent of substantial discussions about the presidential candidates’ stances on reproductive rights, coverage of Donald Trump’s position on abortion led at every network. Of 217 total segments about candidates’ stances, 167 segments included a discussion of Trump’s beliefs about abortion (77 percent). In contrast, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s position on abortion was discussed in only 46 of the 217 segments (21 percent). Other candidates’ positions were discussed in 70 of 217 segments (32 percent).

There Was An Imbalance Of Coverage About Trump’s And Clinton’s Positions Across All Networks. All three networks covered Trump’s position on abortion and reproductive rights more than any other individual candidate’s. On CNN, 87 percent of conversations about candidates’ views on reproductive rights were about Trump (66 out of 76 segments about the election). On Fox News, it was 67 percent (51 out of 76 segments), and on MSNBC, 77 percent (50 out of 65 segments about the election). CNN mentioned Clinton’s position in nine percent of these segments (seven out of 76), Fox did in 34 percent (26 out of 76), and MSNBC did in 20 percent (13 out of 65). These three networks also covered the positions of candidates other than Trump and Clinton more than Clinton’s. CNN discussed other candidates’ views in 18 out of 76 segments (24 percent), while MSNBC did so in 23 of 65 segments (35 percent). Fox News discussed other candidates’ positions in 29 out 76 segments, or in 38 percent of such conversations.

Fox News Led In Coverage Of Clinton’s Position And In Spreading Misinformation About Late-Term Abortion. Fox News featured the most segments with some conversation of Clinton’s position on abortion. Out of 76 segments about the candidates’ positions on abortion and reproductive rights, 26 mentioned Clinton’s position. Although Fox’s coverage of Clinton’s position outpaced both CNN’s and MSNBC’s, the network was also the main platform for spreading misinformation about late-term abortion. From March 7, 2016, through March 1, 2017, 94 statements about late-term abortion were made during evening programming on Fox News. Of these, 88 (or 94 percent) were inaccurate. Although it is not possible to draw a definitive link between Fox’s relative dominance in both discussions of Clinton’s position on abortion and inaccurate conversations about late-term abortion, the correlation between the two suggests that viewers of the network heard more negative messaging about Clinton and reproductive rights than other networks’ viewers did.

Courts/Litigation Was The Second Most Common Context For Conversations About Abortion. Media Matters found that the second most common context for conversations about abortion, trailing behind segments about the candidates’ position on reproductive rights, was discussions about courts/litigation. Out of 354 total segments from 12 months of coverage, 127 segments (36 percent) discussed abortion in relation to courts/litigation.

MSNBC And Fox News Had The Most Segments About Courts/Litigation. Out of 109 total segments about abortion and reproductive rights, MSNBC had 49 segments about courts/litigation, meaning this frame constituted 45 percent of its evening coverage about reproductive rights. Fox News discussed courts or litigation in 43 segments out of 120 (36 percent). CNN was last, with 35 of its 125 (28 percent) segments about abortion focusing on courts and litigation.

In Comparison, Networks Hardly Covered Anti-Choice Violence Or The Economic And Logistical Barriers To Abortion Access. In contrast to coverage of the legal battles over abortion access, there was very little coverage on any network of either anti-choice violence or the consequences of making abortion inaccessible. Across all networks, there were four segments about anti-choice violence in 12 months of evening cable news coverage (1 percent of 354 segments). In the same period, there were 18 segments out of 354 about the economic or logistical barriers to abortion access (5 percent of total segments).

CNN Had No Segments About Anti-Choice Violence And Only Five About Barriers To Abortion Access. In 12 months of evening coverage, CNN aired no segments about anti-choice violence and only five about economic and logistical barriers to abortion access. Together, the topics comprised 4 percent of CNN’s coverage about abortion and reproductive rights (125 segments).

Fox News Had One Segment About Anti-Choice Violence And Two About Barriers To Abortion Access. In comparison to the 43 segments Fox News aired about the courts and abortion litigation, the network aired only one segment about anti-choice violence and two about barriers to abortion access. Notably, the one segment about anti-choice violence occurred during The O’Reilly Factor, when host Bill O’Reilly suggested the risk of such violence was low.

MSNBC Had Three Segments About Anti-Choice Violence And 11 About Barriers To Abortion Access. Out of all three networks, MSNBC led the coverage of anti-choice violence and barriers to abortion access. During the 12-month study period, MSNBC’s coverage of abortion-related topics included three segments that discussed anti-choice violence — all of which aired during The Rachel Maddow Show. MSNBC also led the coverage about barriers to abortion access with 11 segments, with five of those also airing during The Rachel Maddow Show. The remaining six segments were evenly divided among Hardball with Chris Matthews, All In with Chris Hayes, and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell.

Fox News Dominated Discussions About Abortion In Connection To Religion/Faith Over 12 Months. Throughout the 12-month study period, religion/faith was the third most common context in which abortion was discussed, representing 14 percent of 354 total segments. Fox News aired the most discussions of religion/faith, with 24 of 120 segments (20 percent). CNN and MSNBC had 15 and 10 segments, respectively. 

A Majority Of Fox News’ Conversations About Abortion And Religion Aired During Special Report, The O’Reilly Factor, And Hannity. Out of 24 segments about abortion/faith on Fox News, 21 aired during The O’Reilly Factor, Special Report with Bret Baier, or Hannity. The O’Reilly Factor and Special Report featured eight segments each, while Hannity aired five.

CNN Aired 15 Segments About Abortion In Connection To Religion Or Faith, Amounting To Approximately 12 Percent Of Its Coverage. Out of 125 total segments on CNN during the 12-month study period,15 involved some discussion of abortion in concert with religion/faith (12 percent). Notably, seven of these 15 segments aired during CNN Tonight.

MSNBC Aired 10 Segments About Abortion In The Context Of Religion Or Faith, Amounting To Less Than 10 Percent Of Its Coverage. Out of 109 total segments on MSNBC about reproductive rights, only 10 were about abortion in concert with religion/faith — comprising just 9 percent of the channel’s total coverage on reproductive rights. Of these 10 segments, four aired on All In with Chris Hayes, and three aired on The Rachel Maddow Show.

Fox News Aired All But One Of The Total Statements About CMP — And 90 Percent Of Them Were Inaccurate. Over 12 months of evening cable news, Fox News aired all but one of the total statements about the Center for Medical Progress (CMP). Ninety percent of Fox’s statements about the discredited anti-choice group were inaccurate, with the network usually describing its work as “investigative journalism” or failing to mention that it had been refuted by multiple congressional and state investigations. The O’Reilly Factor was responsible for 13 inaccurate claims about CMP and only two accurate ones. The balance of information was similarly poor on Special Report with Bret Baier, which aired 11 inaccurate statements about CMP but only two accurate ones. The Kelly File and Hannity were responsible for five and eight inaccurate statements, respectively, and neither aired any accurate ones to counteract the spread of misinformation.

Sean Hannity Was The Only Host To Invite David Daleiden On His Program. Fox News’ Sean Hannity was the only host to invite discredited CMP founder David Daleiden on his show during the 12-month study period. On the April 4 edition of Hannity, the host gave Daleiden an entire segment to propagate his inaccurate, anti-choice claim that Planned Parenthood illicitly sold fetal tissue, which multiple investigations have disproved. Hannity and Daleiden made a total of eight inaccurate statements about the credibility of CMP’s findings in this segment.

With The Exception Of Fox News, Information Shared About Planned Parenthood’s Essential Care Services Was Largely Accurate. One of the prevailing anti-choice myths about Planned Parenthood is that it can be defunded because its services are nonessential — they can easily be provided by other community health centers (CHC). Media Matters analyzed 12 months of coverage of abortion and reproductive rights to determine if this misinformation was prevalent in evening cable news. Accurate statements were those where a speaker said or supported the idea that Planned Parenthood is a “necessary” or “essential” health care provider or that there are not many alternatives able to fill the gap if the organization is defunded. Inaccurate statements were those where the speaker incorrectly refuted those points. The same applied to claims that Planned Parenthood “helps” women, or provides access to cancer screenings, pap smears, referrals, wellness exams, contraceptives, STD tests, family planning, or LGBTQ health services (all true). Media Matters found that with the exception of Fox News — which was split 50-50 between accurate and inaccurate information — CNN and MSNBC shared largely accurate information about Planned Parenthood’s role as an essential service provider. Between all three networks, 66 percent of the statements made on the topics were accurate.

On CNN, 26 Percent Of Statements About Planned Parenthood’s Essential Services Were Inaccurate. Over 12 months, CNN aired nine inaccurate statements and 26 accurate ones about Planned Parenthood’s services, making the network’s coverage only 26 percent inaccurate. Five of these inaccurate statements were aired during Anderson Cooper 360, while four were aired during CNN Tonight. In each instance, the number of accurate statements about Planned Parenthood’s services exceeded the number of inaccurate statements, with Anderson Cooper 360 airing nine accurate statements, CNN Tonight airing 10 accurate ones, and Erin Burnett OutFront airing seven accurate statements.

Fox News Spread Inaccurate Information About Planned Parenthood’s Essential Services Approximately Half Of The Time. Fox News spread inaccurate information about Planned Parenthood’s role as an essential service provider approximately half the time it covered the nonprofit, airing 13 accurate and 13 inaccurate statements during the 12-month study period. Notably, nearly all inaccurate statements on the network were made on The O’Reilly Factor (which aired six inaccurate and six accurate) and Hannity (which aired four inaccurate and zero accurate). Although there were two inaccurate statements aired during The Kelly File (prior to the program’s cancellation with the departure of host Megyn Kelly), the program also included five accurate ones.

MSNBC Aired Inaccurate Information About Planned Parenthood’s Essential Services In 29 Percent Of Its Coverage. In the 12 months of coverage analyzed for this study, MSNBC aired six inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood’s essential services and 15 accurate ones; inaccurate statements thus constituted only 29 percent of the network’s coverage. Notably, all six inaccurate statements were made during Hardball with Chris Matthews, which included only two accurate statements as a counterbalance. In comparison, The Rachel Maddow ShowThe Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell, and For The Record with Greta all aired only accurate statements about Planned Parenthood’s role as an essential service provider.

Across All Networks, Statements About Late-Term Abortion Were Inaccurate 88 Percent Of The Time. Given the frequency of verbal attacks on late-term abortion access, Media Matters specifically tracked the prevalence of misinformation about this legal medical procedure during the 12-month study period. In addition to coding accurate and inaccurate statements about late-term abortion, Media Matters also looked for use of misleading anti-choice terms about the practice including: “sex-selective” abortion, “race-selective” abortion, “partial-birth” abortion, abortions after 20 weeks that allegedly risk the feeling of “fetal pain,” “abortion until the moment of birth,” “abortion on demand,” or abortion for “anyone, anytime, anyplace.” From March 7, 2016, through March 1, 2017, 136 total statements were made about late-term abortion and the procedures that allegedly constitute a late-term abortion across all three networks. Of these 136 statements, 119 were inaccurate (88 percent) and only 17 gave accurate information about late-term abortion.

On CNN, 75 Percent Of Statements About Late-Term Abortion Were Inaccurate. During CNN’s evening programming, 75 percent of information shared about late-term abortion was inaccurate. In 12 months, CNN aired 16 statements about late-term abortion — 12 of which were inaccurate. Erin Burnett OutFront and CNN Tonight led the network with four inaccurate statements each. Problematically, both programs featured little to no accurate discussion of late-term abortion, with OutFront including zero accurate statements and CNN Tonight airing merely one. The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer aired three inaccurate and two accurate statements.

On Fox News, 94 Percent Of Statements About Late-Term Abortion Were Inaccurate. In 12 months of evening programming, 88 out of 94 statements (94 percent) made on Fox News about late-term abortion were incorrect. With the exception of The First 100 Days and On The Record with Brit Hume — both of which began airing after the election — no Fox News program had even a semblance of balanced coverage of late-term abortion. All statements about the topic made on Special Report with Bret Baier, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and Hannity were inaccurate. In particular, Hannity alone aired 23 inaccurate statements, while Special Report and Tucker Carlson Tonight aired nine and three inaccurate statements, respectively. Although 13 out of 17 statements made on The Kelly File were inaccurate (76 percent), The O’Reilly Factor was the single biggest misinformer on the network. In 12 months, 40 out of 42 statements (95 percent) about late-term abortion made on The O’Reilly Factor were inaccurate.

MSNBC Gave A Platform To Misinformation About Late-Term Abortion In 73 Percent Of Its Coverage. MSNBC aired 19 inaccurate statements about late-term abortion and only seven accurate ones during the 12-month study period, meaning the network spread misinformation in 73 percent of its coverage on the topic. Notably, the majority of this misinformation was aired during Hardball with Chris Matthews. Of the 19 inaccurate statements aired on the network, 14 were made during Hardball. Although the program also featured six accurate statements, 70 percent of its coverage on the topic still skewed toward misinformation.

Methodology

Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts for evening cable news programming from March 7, 2016, through March 1, 2017. We included the following programs in the data: CNN’s The Situation Room, Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360, This is Life with Lisa Ling, and CNN Tonight; Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren*, On the Record with Brit Hume*, The O’Reilly Factor, The Kelly File*, Hannity, America’s Election Headquarters*, Tucker Carlson Tonight*, and First 100 Days*; MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, For the Record with Greta*, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell. Due to the substantial reorganization of Fox News’ programming during the study period, programs that were either added or removed from the network are marked with an asterisk. During the study period, Greta Van Susteren moved to MSNBC and began hosting a program; unlike with the network’s previous 6 p.m. programming, the transcripts for this program were included in the Nexis database, and thus were included.

For this study, Media Matters included only those segments where the stated topic of conversation was abortion or reproductive rights, or where “substantial discussion” of these topics occurred. We defined “substantial discussion” as that where two or more speakers had at least one direct exchange on the topic. Host monologues were also included only when the speaker made two independent mentions of abortion or reproductive rights within the same segment. We did not include statements made in news or video clips in edited news packages except those made by a network correspondent. If news packages aired more than once, Media Matters coded only the first unique appearance. Similarly, if a live event — such as a town hall or public forum — was held during regularly scheduled programming these segments were also excluded because the participants were not network or media guests. 

The resulting 354 segments were then coded for the mention of one or more of six general topics of conversation: the election, legal issues, religion, anti-choice violence, economic and logistical barriers to abortion access, and state-based legislation. Segments were also coded for the number of accurate or inaccurate statements each speaker made about three topics: the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), Planned Parenthood’s essential services, and late-term abortion.

*Julie Alderman and Rob Savillo contributed to this report. Graphics by Sarah Wasko.