When headlines undermine news content: Detroit, abortion rates, poverty, and Third-World references

The bold story headline: “Doctor: Detroit abortion stats ‘like some Third World country'”

The quote: “We’re seeing a picture that looks more like some Third-World country than someplace in the United States,” said Dr. Susan Schooley, chairwoman of the Department of Family Medicine at Henry Ford Hospital.

The meme: “Third-World” as code for “African”.

The article: policy advocacy, or selling news?

The Detroit News published a provocative article this week about abortion rates in Detroit. The facts may be true (I would still want to verify them), but is the article being truthful in its presentation? Yes, technically, the abortion rate in Detroit as calculated is similar to that in some developing countries. But at 37.9%, one could also say that it is similar to the 2008 rates in Latin America (32%) or Asia (28%), or that it’s better than (gasp!) Europe in the 1990s (48%). However, presenting the information that way wouldn’t result in a neat tweetable and clickable story that fits into preconceived notions of race and pregnancy rates.

Guttmacher Institute - abortion rates worldwide

“But problems that often underlie abortion, such as poverty and poor access to health care, are public health issues that need to be addressed if the rate is to be reduced….”

The article does note that national studies show a direct correlation between abortion and poverty, and focuses on the public health aspects of addressing the issue.  It contrasts the abortion rate in Detroit with that for Michigan as a whole – which would be fine if it were clearly understood that the difference between them is also related to income levels and access to health care. But, there is that blaring headline and quote, which slants reader perception in another direction.

Stories like these are meant to shock, to create awareness, and to gin up a groundswell of support for some policy actions to address a particular issue. However, using hidden references to race in this case could have the effect of misguiding the public into (or worse, reinforcing) an inaccurate assessment of the root causes of the problem. Most people who read this article – if they read it at all (many will simply skim and not finish) – will probably come away thinking it’s just an issue within the African-American community in Detroit, rather than remembering the statements correlating the rate of abortion with poverty levels. In that sense, the framing of this news story sells the news, but undercuts its own attempt to inform.

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