As soon as we published our Raw Data on the recent abortion bill the Senate rejected, there were a series of polarized commentson 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 politicsHuffPost 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 opinionTwenty-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 restThe 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.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News