Understanding ‘Teen Pregnancy’ Frames Using Media Cloud Tools

June 9, 2016

This post is the first in a series of lab notes about ongoing research with the Media Cloud project.  The idea is to share research in progress with the community both to better keep everyone up to date with what we’re working on and to gather early feedback on our work.

The work described in this post was done using what we have been calling our Controversy Mapper tool set, which uses spidering to discover new links related to a given topic and to analyze the links network of stories within the topic.

The Controversy Mapper tools have been used to generate and analyze the data we have used for almost all of our major publications, but for resource reasons we have not been able to make those tools available to the public.  We have recently started a new grant cycle, and our major focus for the next two years is extending this set of tools and making at least the results generated by them available to the public.  The new set of tools will be called Topic Mapper and will include a public interface for viewing the variety of Topics (formerly Controversies) we have created over the past few years.  Eventually we hope to provide public access to Topic creation tools.

Media Cloud as a project has long been interested in questions around the interaction of the internet and democracy.  We have explored related topics in work about the network public sphere in Russia, the SOPA debate, online coverage of Trayvon Martin, and the Net Neutrality controversy, among others.  A core question that drives all of this work is how people use online media in a modern society to create and consume knowledge, and in the process influence policy.  We have consistently found that in online media these processes of creating and consuming the knowledge that informs policy are intertwined in ways that were not possible with offline media.

We have recently started looking into more topics around public health, which share these intertwined processes of creating and consuming knowledge and policy.  Like traditional broadcast media, public health officials have traditionally been interested in distributing information from experts out to the masses.  In the case of public health, the experts are scientists and doctors.  But just as the internet has disrupted the flow of political information from political elites down to the crowds, it has also disrupted the flow of health information from scientists and doctors to the general public.

Recently we’ve been looking at the topic of teen pregnancy because it provides a fascinating case study of a public health topic that is the center of a rich diversity of discussion in online media.  Public health experts treat teen pregnancy as a prominent public health issue — the CDC lists “teen pregnancy prevention” as one of its top six priorities. But even this simple framing of teen pregnancy as a public health issue, focused on prevention, is controversial. Other actors are working online toward a “reproductive justice” framing of the issue, arguing for positive support of teens and young families rather than disease prevention. These two framings co-exist with stories focusing on popular TV shows and movies about the issue, on the issue as spectacle controversy, and on providing neutral information.

To explore this topic, we searched Media Cloud for stories mentioning one of a set of terms related to teen pregnancy in a variety of US media, including both general media and media specific to sexual and reproductive health and rights, from September 2013 through September 2014. We iteratively spidered all urls from those stories and included relevant stories in the set. Through the combination of archive search and spidering, we discovered 6,049 stories about teen pregnancy.  The following link map of media sources shows the results of that spidering process, colored by communities generated by Louvain community detection:

What this map makes apparent is the degree to which the various framings of the teen pregnancy issue are deeply intertwined in online media.   The large CDC node near the middle represents the framing of teen pregnancy as a public health problem to be solved.  The Guttmacher node near the CDC represents the most influential advocate of the competing reproductive justice framing of the issue.  The MTV node just above the CDC represents the entertainment framing, and the various news / political media, including Think Progress, the New York Times, and MSNBC, report on a variety of issues tying together all of these framings as well as reporting on teen pregnancy as a topic of generic controversy.

Another way to glimpse the variety of framings and the ways in which they interact is by sampling sentences from the spidered stories.  Following is a randomly sampled set of sentences mentioning ‘pregnancy’ from the set of spidered stories.  These stories share the same lesson as the link map above — that discussion of teen pregnancy online spans worlds of politics, medicine, social justice, and entertainment.  We leave for the reader the exercise of associating each sentence with one or more of the above framings.

The Atlantic Monthly – 8/21/2014

“… The recession, the uptick in IUD use, a hit MTV show that deglamorized teen pregnancy — each of these factors could have have caused a small decline on their own. …”

Reproductive Health & Justice Research Blog – 12/16/2013

“… On the contrary, many young women viewed pregnancy as a positive force in their life.(4) …”

usatoday.com – 9/3/2014

“… DETROIT — A former chemistry teacher at a Catholic, all-girls high school in Bloomfield Hills said she was fired before the semester started because of her “non-traditional” pregnancy. …”

The Republican Majority for Choice Blog – 11/15/2013

“… And if we are serious about preventing unwanted pregnancy, teen pregnancy and abortion we need to look at the facts. …”

tvtropes.org – 9/3/2014

“… The second season of Downton Abbey presents with the housemaid Ethel, who has a few dalliances with an officer convalescing at Downton, resulting in her pregnancy. …”

theind.com – 2/27/2014

“… Social conservatives in the Legislature directed by the Louisiana Family Forum will brook no talk of rubbers with the children, despite a comprehensive 2011 study by researchers at the University of Georgia who looked at sex ed curricula in 48 states and concluded that “states with the lowest teen pregnancy rates were those that prescribed comprehensive sex and/or HIV education, covering abstinence alongside proper contraception and condom use. …”

flavorwire.com – 6/20/2014

“… Individually, each has a reason for backing off from abortion, whether that reason is because pregnancy is the entire premise of the movie or because single motherhood is equally valid territory for a show about 30-something women to cover. …”

Live Action News – 9/11/2014

“… I keep forgetting that American pro-lifers are not only responsible for every bad thing that happens to pregnant women in the United States, but every pregnancy-related injustice anywhere else in the world as well. …”

cdc.gov – 4/22/2014

“… Increase linkages between teen pregnancy prevention programs and community-based clinical services. …”

In addition to generating the link network map above, we counted inlinks and clicks on bitly shortened versions the url of each story. We coded for story type each of the most link-influential and the most bitly-influential stories.  We found the following order of prevalence for link-influential (website) stories:

  1. information
  2. controversy
  3. entertainment
  4. prevention
  5. information about the impact of entertainment
  6. reproductive justice activist

We found the following order of prevalence for bitly-influential (social media) stories:

  1. entertainment
  2. controversy
  3. information
  4. other
  5. information about the impact of entertainment
  6. reproductive justice activist.

From the above rankings, it is clear that the large majority of influential stories did not frame the issue as either a public health prevention or a social justice problem. As we further explore this data, we think that we will be able to argue that public health officials and social justice activists (who may be the same actors) should consider how to interject themselves into informational, entertainment, or controversial modes of conversation if they want to influence public perception of the topic. All of these different agendas and frames form a complex network of actors and themes that influences how both teens and society as a whole view teen pregnancy.  Actors (political, social, and/or health oriented) need to work within that network to gain influence within the discussion.