How the media helps issues like abortion stay controversial
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How the media helps issues like abortion stay controversial

January 31, 2018

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

US Senate blocks bill banning abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy

On Monday, the U.S. Senate voted 51 to 46 to block a bill banning abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy. To pass, the bill required 60 votes from the Senate, whose 51 Republican senators hold a majority over 47 Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) co-sponsored the bill. The 1973 “Roe v. Wade” Supreme Court ruling legalized abortion through about 28 weeks of pregnancy.

Read the full Raw Data here.

Distortion Highlights

  • Controversial issues like abortion tend to be the subjects of a lot of polarized debate.
  • See how the media participates in keeping those issues, well, controversial.
  • A caveat: this comes at the expense of two things that could help resolve them — data and critical thinking.

Show Me Everything

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion.)

Top Spin Words

  • Eminently humane

    The radical pro-abortion lobby has such a firm hold on the Democratic party that too few of its senators will dare to cross the aisle and vote for this eminently humane legislation. (National Review)

  • Vulnerable

    The GOP hopes to pressure vulnerable Democrats into supporting it. (The Huffington Post)

  • Akin to getting a haircut

    These are not the early-stage abortions so often dismissed by abortion-rights activists as insignificant or akin to getting a haircut. (National Review)

  • Willful ignorance

    Perhaps their willful ignorance has something to do with the copious money Planned Parenthood and NARAL pour into in politics, not to mention the threat of retaliation from those same powerful lobbying groups. (National Review)

  • Undue pressure

    The bill would permit abortions in cases of rape and incest, though a woman would need to first report the crime to police, a requirement that abortion-rights advocates say would place undue pressure on women. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Hangs in the balance

    Democrats slammed Republican leadership on Monday for prioritizing an abortion ban less than a week after the government shutdown, and as the fate of so-called “Dreamers” ― young undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children ― still hangs in the balance. (The Huffington Post)

  • Masking

    “What the GOP wants people to hear is that they are the “pro-life” party,” said Amanda Thayer, a spokeswoman for NARAL Pro-Choice America, “but there’s no masking the fact that these types of abortion bans disproportionately hurt women and families who face some of the most medically complex situations imaginable.” (The Huffington Post)

  • Extremist pro-abortion

    “If red-state Dems hold the party line on this vote, it will allow their opponents to show how the extremist pro-abortion forces on the left have forced these senators way out of step with their constituents,” said GOP campaign strategist Chris Wilson. (The Wall Street Journal)

  • Commonsense

    “That’s why the #Senate will soon vote to take up commonsense legislation to protect unborn children who can feel pain,” McConnell tweeted in support of the measure. (Daily Caller)

As soon as we published our Raw Data on the recent abortion bill the Senate rejected, there were a series of polarized comments on our Facebook page — and all we did was publish the facts about the vote!

The media plays a significant role in keeping controversial subjects, well, controversial, and it does this at the expense of data and critical thinking. Here are three ways the outlets we analyzed helped keep the controversy alive.

Instead of data, emphasize politics

HuffPost and The Wall Street Journal devoted most of their coverage to some of the politics around the bill. In short, they suggested Republicans used the bill for political leverage to influence voter decisions in this year’s midterm elections. For instance, HuffPost wrote:

But conservatives hope that holding a vote on the bill will put some political pressure on vulnerable Democrats from red states — and newly elected Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama — to either support it or risk alienating some of their anti-abortion constituents.

Maybe that’s what Republicans tried to do, maybe not. The issue here is the outlets didn’t back up the accusation with data — just their opinions and others’ opinions (but not lawmakers’). In any case, prioritizing political drama over data that could help better understand the bill does readers a disservice.

Instead of data, provide opinion

Twenty-four of National Review’s 40 sentences contained the outlet’s own opinion about the bill. That’s 60 percent of the article! None of the opinions were attributed as such, and some disparaged Democrats. For instance:

Any lawmaker who opposes this bill cannot rightly be called “pro-choice,” cannot hide behind the gauzy defenses of bodily autonomy and clumps of cells. To support these late-term, elective procedures is to be pro-abortion. The Democratic party of “safe, legal, and rare” is never coming back.

Commingling data with opinion can lead readers to mistake subjectivity for fact. Since opinion is biased, it may do more to polarize readers on an issue, than to provide information that could help them examine it from different perspectives.

Give one-sided data, hide the rest

The Daily Caller provided some interesting facts about how U.S. citizens view abortion:

Seventy-six percent of Americans want significant abortion restrictions, including making abortion illegal after three months in pregnancy, a recent poll showed. More than 60 percent of Americans are also in favor of banning abortions after 20 weeks in pregnancy and six in 10 Americans oppose using tax dollars to pay for abortions.

Sounds convincing, doesn’t it? Here’s what’s missing: citing the exact poll, citing how many people were polled and their demographics, and providing other poll results that don’t necessarily support the outlet’s position on the matter. Read more about this and other data that was missing from the coverage here.

Controversial issues are just that because they bring into play very personal elements, such as our values and fears. It doesn’t mean they’re irresolvable; it just means we have to try harder, as a species, to come to a fuller understanding of the problem and its potential consequences. The only way to do this is with critical thinking and data — lots of it and weighed in proportion to reality, not a particular bias.

The media could benefit society and these discussions greatly if it moved to data-based reporting, and reserved opinion for op-eds and the like.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 21% Spun

  • 34% Spun

  • 41% Spun

  • 60% Spun



“Democrats slammed Republican leadership on Monday for prioritizing an abortion ban less than a week after the government shutdown, and as the fate of so-called ‘Dreamers’ … still hangs in the balance.”

Some Democrats criticized Republican leadership on Monday for bringing an abortion bill to the Senate floor less than a week after the government shutdown, and with no bill on the future of “Dreamers.”

National Review

“The radical pro-abortion lobby has such a firm hold on the Democratic party that too few of its senators will dare to cross the aisle …”

Three Democrats voted for the bill. Two Republicans voted against it.

National Review

“To oppose this bill’s restraint on unlimited abortion access, the hard Left has had to disguise some crucial facts.”

Abortion access in the U.S. is not “unlimited” — some states already limit when and by what methods abortions can be performed.

National Review

“This debate demonstrates exactly how far the Left has managed to push the goalposts on abortion …”

No facts here.

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

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