Cable news cites politicians and priests more than medical experts on birth control
Earlier this year, an unsurprising report published by Media Matters revealed that abortion is predominantly discussed and reported on cable news by men, aka people whose bodies will never be affected by abortion rights laws making it difficult to end a pregnancy. The findings on coverage of other specifics of women’s health on cable news frankly don’t get much better. According to a new report published by researchers at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Michigan in Contraception journal, when it comes to birth control, politicians and religious figures are doing most of the on-air talking. At this point, I can’t help but wonder why cable news is still a thing.
The report, written by practicing obstetrician/gynecologists Elizabeth W. Patton and Michelle Moniz, examined coverage of contraception on ABC, CBS, and NBC between January 2010 and July 2014. For context, it was during this crucial period that the Supreme Court was deciding on Hobby Lobby v. Burwell, which looked into the rights of privately owned companies to deny employees the contraceptive coverage women were guaranteed by the Affordable Care Act. The study distinguished between what birth control methods were being discussed, the people interviewed or quoted, and made note of what information was included.
Not only did fewer than one-third of stories feature any medical information at all, but 40 percent of quotes or interviews on different types of birth control were from politicians and government leaders, 25 percent by the general public, and 16 percent by Catholic Church leaders. Only 11 percent of people on TV news either speaking about or being quoted on birth control were medical professionals, and only 3 percent were ob-gyns.
According to Patton and Moniz, most stories focused almost solely on the “social and political” aspects of birth control, as opposed to medically relevant information, such as “the failure rate of a method, how to use it, and potential side effects.”
“[T]he information we as doctors consider most critical … was missing from nearly all TV news stories about contraception,” the two wrote.
While all forms of birth control, including the oral pill, the emergency contraceptive pill, condoms, and long-acting reversible contraceptives (LARC), which include IUDs and implants, were covered in the news, LARCs, which are regarded as a first-choice contraceptive by the medical experts of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was mentioned in only 5 percent of stories.
“While our study did focus on a politically charged time period around the ACA, coverage patterns didn’t seem to change when we looked at stories about contraception unrelated to the [Affordable Care Act],” Patton and Moniz wrote. “We saw similar topic and source selection in these stories too.”
So, what does it all mean? Understandably, the public gets a lot of its information regarding health from the media. While the median age of TV news’ audience now ranges from 45 to 53 and most millennials get their information from social media and the internet, since politicians and priests are predominantly the sources being interviewed on birth control, they’ll inevitably be quoted and referenced in online articles and the media as a whole more than medical professionals. And I don’t think I need to explain why it’s so problematic that women are drawing their information for crucial health decisions from often deeply biased perspectives.
The role of the media, Patton and Moniz note, is to offer context, not disproportionately shine light on the political agenda of an anti-choice senator seeking to police women’s bodies and hold them to his religious beliefs, or a priest’s interpretations of the bible and perceptions of Plan B as literal murder. Sure, it’s also the media’s role to share different perspectives and give everyone a voice, but it is so crucial that this is weighed with the objective truths of the situation that will enable the public to formulate its own opinions. And it’s all the more crucial that this is the case when the topic is birth control. Women shouldn’t have to wade through other people’s politics when it comes to their health and bodily autonomy.
At the end of the day, frankly, this isn’t just about how problematic it is to politicize sexual health and create a dialogue rooted in extreme opinions rather than objective fact. Let’s be real here: a society whose information about contraception was predominantly from politicians and priests would literally benefit no one. Unwanted pregnancy rates and, in turn, abortion rates, would soar, and I strongly doubt this would please Republican senators or priests. So let’s just do everyone a favor here and give women the information they need to have safe sex and plan their futures.