Demanding Better Reproductive Health and Rights Journalism


 Jay Rosen deconstructs the “he said/she said” journalism NPR applied to a story on abortion access. NPR covers the anti-contraception movement in Texas, and Bachmann’s ignorant comments on HPV inspire some responsible medical journalism.

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Links in this episode:

Cats that glow in the dark

NPR report on contraception funding cuts

Anti-condom propaganda 

Facts about the HPV vaccine

Scolding girls is not actually enough

On this episode of Reality Cast, Jay Rosen will be on to explain the dangers of “he said/she said” journalism.  NPR continues to cover the anti-contraception movement, though they hedge their bets some, and the HPV vaccine story actually produces some quality journalism.

HIV research has produced many scientific miracles.  This is just the most photogenic.

  • cats *

I want a glowing cat. I highly recommend googling this story and checking out the pictures.  They are the coolest.

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Last week, I was thrilled to report that NPR was finally conceding that anti-choicers attack contraception access because they oppose contraception access, at least for women they deem undeserving because they’re young, the “wrong” race, poor, or unmarried.  The explosion in conservatives willing to attack contraception makes it clear they make exceptions for themselves.  See: Rick Perry, who has been instrumental in attacking contraception in Texas, but who has himself had a vasectomy, indicating a willingness to have sex for pleasure, instead of doing the godly thing and just quitting sex after he and his wife stopped having children.  Unfortunately, there was some backsliding, with NPR doing a report on these cuts where they tried valiantly to tie attacks on contraception to abortion, even though they’re basically unrelated except that people who are just anti-sex oppose both.

  • texas 1 *

It’s not that any of this is untrue, but it’s really not what you need to be highlighting in a report on attacks on contraception. It confuses the issue too much, and allows the audience to walk away with the incorrect impression that abortion is the real issue here.  It’s not. Contraception is being cut because conservatives are hostile to contraception. Some, such as activist anti-choicers, just oppose all sex for pleasure. Some do reserve that right for themselves, but simply believe that other people who struggle to afford expensive contraception don’t deserve healthy sex, and instead should be punished with STDs and unintended pregnancy.  Abortion has nothing to do with this per se.  They even managed to get Wayne Christian, a state legislator who works tirelessly against sexual freedom, to say this on the phone.

  • texas 2 *

He directly said this is a war on birth control. I fail to see why we need to keep up the façade that the opposition to family planning funding has anything to do with abortion. The people who are behind the defunding straight up will tell you that it’s about birth control itself.  It’s important to remember that this is the same legislature that has done things like tried to ban all kinds of ordinary sex acts, even between straight people, sex acts like anal sex.  And has banned sex toys like dildos, or had them banned until a court told them to cut it out.  The dust-up over the HPV shot should make the motivations here clear. This isn’t about fetal life. It’s about sex, full stop. So let’s drop the whole pretense that the attack on contraception is collateral damage.  Contraception is what anti-choicers are training their scopes on.

NPR also did an interview with a creepy Baptist lady who runs a crisis pregnancy center in Dallas, because some of the funds cut from family planning clinics will be going to crisis pregnancy centers.

  • texas 3 *

It’s good they’re sharing true information, but again, there’s some journalistic irresponsibility going on here, because the reporter holds back on some valuable information. For instance, this crisis pregnancy center not only doesn’t give contraception information or well woman exams, but it engages is overt anti-contraception propaganda.  The page on STDs  on their website tries to convince you that condoms are ineffective against STDs, and while they concede they do work against HIV, they claim that it doesn’t work all the time and imply that you should therefore give up.  The site also indulges the whole “abortion causes depression” crap, even though that’s been proven untrue over and over.

Caroline Cline is also grabby.

  • texas 4 *

Well, it does go a long way towards explaining why they want the unintended pregnancy rate to go up.  One to 2 percent of girls giving their babies away is a low number; if they’ve got a lot of clients wanting to adopt, destroying contraception access could increase the numbers of adoptable babies tremendously.

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insert interview

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For years, I’ve been worried about the lack of media coverage and discussion of the HPV vaccine and its safety and efficacy.  The reason the media needs to cover the vaccine is that the information that it’s safe and effective needs to get out there.  This is true of all vaccines, but with HPV it’s especially important because mainstream media information can act as a corrective to whisper campaigns.  I’m a big proponent of the idea that bad ideas can spread rapidly through the grapevine and through underground media networks. And the Christian right really is a good example of this; they’ve been behind many moral panics from the fears of Satanists taking over to the folk myth that condoms don’t work, when in reality they do. What I’ve seen going on is that people are not vaccinating girls because they heard in their social networks that the vaccine is dangerous, and the yawning silence from the mainstream media hasn’t done anything to correct their fears.

So while it’s not a good thing that Michele Bachmann ran around on TV claiming that the vaccine will cause mental retardation, it created an incentive for mainstream media organizations to look at the question of the vaccine and how safe it is.  Which is what many proceeded to do, often in strongly worded terms, such as with Dr. Kimberly Gesci’s interview with Thomas Roberts on MSNBC.

  • hpv 1 *

NPR also did a segment, which had its ups and downs, but did address something I think has been under-discussed, which is why parents balk at hearing doctors recommend the vaccinations for girls 11 to 12 years old. 

  • hpv 2 *

It was refreshingly honest to hear that from a parent, because a lot of other parents are just in pure denial that this is part of their reaction to the vaccine. Most conversations I’ve had with more liberal people who oppose the mandatory vaccine about this online start with, “It’s not that I’m in denial that she’s growing up…..” and then end with them saying, “Wouldn’t it just be better if they had sex a little later?” or some variation on it that implies that they simply don’t believe that it can happen to you unless you’re sexually transgressive, and that their daughters could never be bad girls like that. But most people will get it at some point.  I’ve really been surprised to find out how many liberals still associate sexually transmitted infections with moral unworthiness, and so have trouble understanding why this is so important.  At least for other people, since most of us have convinced ourselves we fall on the good girl side of the line.

NPR did not one, but two stories about the science of the vaccine, and the weekend one covered how necessary it is to get girls covered before they start having sex.

  • hpv 3 *

Parents tend to strongly overrate how much they know about their kids’ sex lives.  I’m not saying you’re wrong if you think your 11-year-old isn’t having sex, but a lot of parents of sexually active 15- and 16-year-olds aren’t aware of what their kids are up to. As the doctor notes, a lot of them aren’t having intercourse or that much intercourse, but they are probably still exposed more than parents realize.  Better to be safe than sorry.  This goes double for evangelical Christians, who research has shown tend to have sex at younger ages and with more partners than kids of other religious groups.

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And now for the Wisdom of Wingnuts, Fox News stays the exception to every rule edition.  While most media outlets chose to cover the HPV vaccine story by providing good information on how safe and effective the vaccine is, Manny Alvarez on Fox News decided to go with misinformation. 

  • alvarez *

It’s terrible because he does reference the actual science and agrees that the vaccine isn’t dangerous. But the notion that you can scold your kids into not having sex simply isn’t true. As noted before, research shows that evangelical kids are more, not less likely to have sex before they’re old enough to choose the vaccine for themselves. Anyway, by his logic, the only good way to avoid the flu is to avoid other people altogether.  If you’re going to be abstinence-only, be consistent. 


Follow Amanda Marcotte on twitter: @amandamarcotte