Pennsylvania News Analysis

By June 30, 2021No Comments

After Pennsylvania’s House Bill 904 was introduced, our Global Strategy Group partners conducted an analysis of related national and local news coverage of the legislation’s movement.

The insights we uncovered in this brief analysis echo—and are at times even more troubling than—what we learned in our larger analysis of news coverage in 2019. Trends such as the use of disinformation-based rhetoric like “heartbeat” bill without context, the omission of the fact that the vast majority of Americans support reproductive freedom, and the lack of perspectives from medical experts and impacted people persist in coverage of abortion legislation.

Even more so, in this specific case, we have seen an uptick in the use of the inaccurate term “pro-life” to describe the bills themselves. “Pro-life” is an emotionally charged phrase used by opponents of reproductive freedom to describe their stance and shouldn’t be used in mainstream media coverage. People who self-identify as “pro-life”’ hold nuanced and diverse views on whether or not abortion should be legal. Repeating this terminology not only can confuse or mislead audiences, but it also repeats only one side’s argument in a clearly slanted way. Yet, it is often used without context in stories about this legislation. As we continue to monitor coverage out of Pennsylvania, we are looking at this trend.

An analysis of 14 news articles published from March 22 – June 4, 2021, in both local and national outlets reporting on Pennsylvania’s House Bill 904 found:

  • All 14 articles analyzed included quotes from a politician, and only one article included a quote from a medical expert. Of these 14 articles, only one (7%) included the perspectives of Pennsylvania residents—the only coverage we saw to include the perspective of a person affected by the legislation. The lack of representation of the two most important stakeholders in abortion access—pregnant people and medical professionals—is even more striking than our original analysis. That report found that, of more than 300 articles, 14% included physicians’ perspectives, and 8% included the experience of an impacted person.
  • Half the articles (7 out of 14) included some variation of the inflammatory and medically inaccurate phrase “heartbeat bill” or “heartbeat abortion ban”—both in and out of quotes, and separate from the use of “heartbeat” in the bill’s title—which is a phrase pushed by anti-choice activists.
    • While all of the articles that included the phrase provided some context, it varied from accurate—such as including the fact that this legislation typically applies when someone is around six weeks pregnant—to inflammatory—such as claiming that the bill requires physicians to identify the heartbeat of a 6-week-old fetus, which is not possible. None of the articles accurately referred to the “heartbeat” as electrical activity in the cells that will later develop into a heart, and only two noted that this bill would effectively ban abortion care before many people know they are pregnant.
  • Only 4 of the 14 articles mentioned Roe v. Wade. None of those articles mentioned widespread public support of abortion access or the overwhelming support for Roe nationally (77% according to a NPR/PBS/Marist poll). As the Supreme Court prepares to hear a case challenging Roe this year, the context of support for Roe nationally is critical to understanding the landscape of this issue.
  • Half of the articles analyzed used the term “pro-life” to describe both politicians and the anti-choice legislation itself. The term “pro-life” is not an accurate description of the anti-choice movement or the policies it advocates for. The term is an emotionally charged one that implies that people who support the criminalization of abortion support “life” and those who do not must be “anti-life.” Advocates for reproductive freedom support people’s freedom to decide what is best for them, their bodies, their families, and their lives. In its official style guide, the Associated Press notes to avoid the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Four of 14 articles included the term “pro-life” in the headline of the article.