Politics Not Patients

By Katie Ida and Julia Wejchert
November 12, 2015

When it comes to news coverage of abortion related topics, women are often left out of the picture. Instead, the visuals paired with abortion news stories favor contentious politics, and the men who run them.

In the one-thousand most linked to news stories on the topic of abortion in the media from October 1, 2014 to March 30, 2015, just 8.13 percent of 923 photos featured potential abortion patients. In a random sample of stories from that period, they made up just over six percent. So what did they feature?

We examined 2000 news articles from the Media Cloud’s news database: 1000 articles that were the most linked to (Media Cloud uses bit.ly data to determine how often stories were shared online) and 1000 articles from a random sample. In both data sets, protests and legislators or legislative situations dominate the visuals paired with news coverage, reinforcing the narrative that abortion is a political rather than a healthcare issue.

When the stories were separated by the news source’s stance on abortion, the photos that were most often featured varied by the type of source: mainstream news sources most often featured legislative photos, pro-abortion sources predominately featured protest photos, and anti-abortion sources predominately featured photos of fetuses or infants.


The images paired with abortion news coverage tell a visual story divorced from the factual and lived reality of individuals who have abortions and the people who do or don’t support that choice.

When considering the genders of the people in images overall, the numbers of men and women depicted were similar, with slightly more men in the random sample of articles and a fairly equal gender ratio in the most linked to stories. In the random sample, 23.5 percent of photos were dominated by men, 22.2 percent dominated by women, and 54.3 percent of photos had neither a greater amount of women or men (or did not feature a person). This slightly greater number of men, but general equality further serves to distance abortion news coverage from the most literal reality of abortion, since, excepting those who do not fit into the male/female binary, all of the people who have abortions are women. Images that featured men were primarily photos of politicians and protesters. This frames abortion as contentious political issue, rather than a personal decision or health care issue.

But, even when framed as a political issue, the visuals paired with news stories skew disproportionately toward the anti-abortion camp. Pew recently reported that, “When asked directly about the legality of abortion, 51% of U.S. adults say it should be legal in all or most cases, compared with 43% who say it should be illegal all or most of the time. In both cases, these figures have remained relatively stable for more than 20 years.” However, media are more likely to feature anti-abortion photos across source types, with mainstream media featuring anti-abortion photos as 60.2% of 226 photos of protest, activists, and legislatures in the most linked to stories on abortion. Pro-abortion sources as well feature anti-abortion stances as 53.75 percent of 80 stories in the 1000 most linked to stories on abortion.


So why don’t more news sources use images that depict women?

In some cases, the images chosen are the result of intentional strategy. Anti-abortion sources have publicly commented on a shock value strategy, using pictures of miscarried fetuses. The use of fetuses and even birthed children has been identified as an intentional strategy used by anti-abortion activists to “construe abortion as a barbaric procedure that Americans cannot in good conscience allow to continue,” and push Americans with moderate views on abortion to feel uncomfortable with the procedure. In comparison, our research found these types of photos used extremely rarely by mainstream (1.74 percent) and pro-abortion (1.09 percent) news sources.

In contrast, pro-abortion activists and sources have not spoken as blatantly about their reasons for using certain images, and there is less of a clear strategy. The use of anti-abortion protest photos may be part of a “war on women” strategic lens that shows anti-abortion efforts as attacks on women’s freedoms, but that has not been confirmed.

Another possible reason behind image choice has to do with what images are available. Recently, a number of large news publications have taken to creating their own stock images, in order to remedy a lack of diversity in traditional stock images from Shutterstock, Getty Images, and other large databases. But stock images did not make up a majority of the images we analyzed, which leaves a different type of availability issue.

The privacy of abortion patients limits the availability to use photos of actual abortion patients. Due to both stigma and threats to physical violence, patients are unlikely to give consent to have their photos used. A recent Seattle Times article highlights how abortion opponents have used the exposure of abortion patients on the Internet as an intimidation tactic.

Unfortunately, the pro-abortion visual trends–intentional strategy or not–coupled with the trends in visuals from mainstream and anti-abortion sources, keep abortion news coverage from showing the women who best represent the abortion issue: the patients themselves.