Why Are Men Still Media’s Default “Experts” on Reproductive Rights?


As we haltingly approach a half-century since Roe v. Wade, abortion rights activists’ notion of reproductive rights has expanded to become far more inclusive. For instance, 2016’s ideal “reproductive justice” movement fights to include transgender and queer individuals and to safeguard rights that go beyond abortion: to encompass safe, informed, consented-to, and affordable prenatal and childcare, too. This has taken some adjustment within the movement itself, but one thing activists can agree on is that cisgender men are not natural experts on reproductive rights that affect childbearing. So why are they still the majority of voices on abortion and other related issues in the mainstream media?

The numbers don’t lie. More men write major news stories about abortion and reproductive issues than women do, a major study has concluded this week — just in time for the always-controversial anniversary of Roe v. Wade. And more men are quoted in those stories. Even more interestingly, there’s a correlation between the two findings: male journalists are more likely to quote male “experts” on topics like birth control and abortion policy, focusing on the political realm, while their underrepresented female counterparts tend to be more open to covering the healthcare angle.

These findings came from the Women’s Media Center, which commissioned a study of major newspapers and wire services, and tallied bylines and quotes for “1,385 news stories, columns, op-eds, and editorials.” They discovered that men “dominate” that coverage:

Women journalists wrote just 37 percent of articles about reproductive issues, while their men counterparts penned 52 percent (the rest were not bylined). Quotes from men accounted for 41 percent of all quotes in articles about reproductive issues; by contrast, quotes from women accounted for 33 percent (the remainder were either quotes from organizations or otherwise not identifiable by gender).

This extended to the subject of said coverage, as well (highlight ours).

Male journalists tended to focus more on reproductive issues as political issues, relying on a larger number of sources who discussed political platforms or elections. Female journalists were more likely than men to use quotes that dealt with abortion and contraception primarily as health care subjects.

This is an extremely telling finding at a dire moment for reproductive rights. Because if abortion is still being treated by the mainstream media — in this case newspapers — as more of a political football than a health issue, then the reporting will focus on winners and losers, on campaigns and ideological jockeying. And that means the actual impact of such jockeying on women’s everyday existences (which women tend to understand a little more innately) is getting elided.

Some of the best stories about abortion in 2015, for instance, were pieces by women that really explored the impact of the political fight: articles about being a clinic escort at the very last clinic in the Rio Grande Valley and investigations on the way right-wing attacks on abortion are actually affecting fetal tissue research and medical science, along with videos from women recounting their abortions, and an account from a doctor who performs abortion of the dangerous threats she faces for doing her job.

All these above stories are by women, and only one appeared in a major outlet — which means, unfortunately, that they didn’t reach the same audience as, say, front-page national newspaper stories about Ted Cruz castigating abortion-loving New Yorkers. In fact, these excellent stories probably reach a largely self-selecting audience interested in local or “women-focused” news.

That siloing feels particularly galling given how dominant election news will surely be over the next few months, drowning out quieter stories — the political beat, even when it includes reproductive health, is still a male-dominated field. Perhaps that explains why not a single abortion-related question has shown up at any Democratic debate this year. Because all the Democrats are “pro-choice,” one assumes it hasn’t been deemed important. But, in fact, there are crucial policy questions at stake (not to mention judicial nominations).

Clearly, something is off. As thousands of anti-abortion advocates descend on a snowy Washington, DC today for the annual March for Life and the age-old American debate about abortion heats up in advance of a new Supreme Court case, the real, pragmatic impact of these policies gets lost in translation, buried by coverage of strategy and personalities. For instance, even the recent arguing about whether Planned Parenthood is “the establishment” because of a Bernie Sanders comment has become the centerpiece of the kind of gaffe-focused journalism that ignores the most important reproductive rights-related policy discussion Democrats should be having: the exclusion of poor and rural women from abortion care.

To her credit, Hillary Clinton has been campaigning against the Hyde Amendment, which excludes abortion coverage for women on federal insurance. This is an unusually progressive position for a mainstream Democrat to take. “Clinton… dropped a bomb on the political conversation about abortion. It would be difficult to overstate how radical it is,” wrote Rebecca Traister this week. “Yet no one at any of the four official Democratic debates has asked Clinton about her remarkable amplification of feminist argument.” Instead, the back-and-forth about the word “establishment” has been the one reproductive rights story that has taken off in recent days.

That imbalance in which stories get told, in part, explains something we’ve covered extensively at Flavorwire in the past few years: a new series of campaigns everywhere from social media to entertainment media to glossier, celeb-studded videos that try to erase abortion stigma by getting women to tell their stories. Even if they are not influencing people beyond a certain ideology and demographic, the idea is to encourage and normalize the discussion of abortion even in pro-choice settings, setting the stage for a more powerful movement. The latest of these attempts arrived yesterday from the Draw the Line campaign, which enlisted actresses like Orange Is the New Black’s Dascha Polanco, Parks and Recreations‘ Retta, and Elizabeth Banks to narrate women’s personal stories of abortions:

Since we still have more than nine months until the general election, one hopes that some of the independent storytelling efforts by women’s media and women’s groups — not to mention the accounting from the Women’s Media Center — will encourage mainstream news outlets to carefully consider how to cover questions about reproductive justice. It’s not just an issue that demands “taking sides”; it’s a public health matter that deserves sustained and serious attention.