Is the Media All There Is to the Message?

Magazine: the Body Politic
Issue: June, 1994
Title: Is the Media All There Is to the Message?
Author: Jane Claire

Two recent incidents have reinforced my strong belief that the pro-choice movement has a serious problem with mainstream media coverage of our issue:

1) After the very positive Supreme Court decision in NOW v. Scheidler, I was called at Planned Parenthood by a local TV station to try to arrange a live "comment" spot on the 6:00 PM News. This was contingent on the reporter being able to arrange that someone from "the other side" would agree to comment as well! And, could I provide her with names and numbers of people from right-to-life organizations? After a day of trying, the reporter couldn't find anyone willing, so the entire story was not covered.

2) After a morning-long teaching session on reproductive rights issues with fourth-year medical students at our local university, some comments were,

"Pro-choice, pro-life--- fanatics on both sides."

"Why can't there be a compromise?"

"Everyone is so sick of this issue."

"You won the last election, so what are you worried about?"

A recent discussion with others working in Public Affairs programs in various Planned Parenthoods produced similar stories. For all our momentum towards a positive agenda since the election, we seem to be stuck in a marginalized media-defined "pro-abortion" role: Pro-abortion only because there is an anti-abortion movement. By opposing them, we must be the opposite!

The mainstream media, with its insistence on soundbites, good guys / bad guys, and "gotchas", has imposed such structural limitations on coverage of complicated ethical issues that a search for the real story is often fruitless. Is Doctor Kevorkian the real story of assisted suicide? Is Randy Terry really all there is to the abortion issue? A visitor arriving from an alien planet might think so, based on available news coverage.

Having beat back Constitutional and legislative challenges to the basic right to choose, the pro-choice community now faces the daunting task of explaining abortion access issues (including health care reform) within the limitations of the modern press. How do you do a 10 second (or less) soundbite on a mandated waiting period or a parental notification?

We must also remember that many Americans get their only "news" from Pat Robertson, Rush Limbaugh, and Paul Weyrich's National Empowerment Television. More and more people are interested in hearing innuendo and opinion reported as fact, as long as their ideology is supported.

Is there anything we can do to reverse this process? I'm not sure, but her are some suggestions for pro-choicers who work with the media:

Jane Clair is President of the Board of the Body Politic and Vice President for Public Affairs/ Grants at Planned Parenthood of Broome and Chenango Counties. One of her favorite quotes is:
If you're going to hold someone down, you're going to have to hold on to the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression.
Toni Morrison 1989
Go Back to Shy David's Abortion Page.