National papers underreport shifting landscape
Over the past decade, it has gotten much more difficult for women in the United States to access safe and legal abortion services, according to a new study by the Guttmacher Institute (1/14). National media, however, are not keeping up with this dramatically changing landscape, leaving the changes largely outside of public debate.
Guttmacher’s findings are striking:
Twenty-two states enacted 70 abortion restrictions during 2013. This makes 2013 second only to 2011 in the number of new abortion restrictions enacted in a single year. To put recent trends in even sharper relief, 205 abortion restrictions were enacted over the past three years (2011–13), but just 189 were enacted during the entire previous decade (2001–10).
These laws include restrictions on abortion providers, insurance coverage of abortions, and abortions themselves, among other things. The study continues:
In 2000, 13 states had at least four types of major abortion restrictions and so were considered hostile to abortion rights…. Twenty-seven states fell into this category by 2013…. The proportion of women living in restrictive states went from 31 percent to 56 percent, while the proportion living in supportive states fell from 40 percent to 31 percent over the same period.
Meanwhile, according to a search of the Nexis news media database, coverage of abortion in the New York Times and Washington Post—the papers with the most influence on national political debates—has been trending downward since 2001.
The year 2011, which as Guttmacher points out saw the most dramatic spike in terms of anti-choice policies, had the least coverage of abortion in the New York Times in the last 13 years, and the second least in the Washington Post. Coverage bumped up in 2012, most likely as a result of the election year and its recurring “war on women” theme, which was boosted by controversies like Missouri Rep. Todd Akin’s infamous explanation of his opposition to abortion even in cases of rape: “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” (In the 2008 election, abortion was not a major focus of debate.)
It’s possible that some of the downward trend can be attributed to a shrinking news hole, as papers adjust to dwindling revenues. But regardless of the cause, it’s clear that readers aren’t getting sustained coverage that reflects the major shift in reproductive rights battles and access nationwide.
And as Sara McCloskey pointed out in her survey of 2013 abortion coverage (Extra!, 9/13), media priorities are clear: During the week and a half in which North Dakota passed some of the most restrictive abortion legislation in the country, national media mentioned the bills 207 times—and March Madness basketball 1,407 times.