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.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

John Sides

John Sides is an associate professor of political science at George Washington University.