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Category: Media, Media Monitoring, Reproductive Rights

When Todd Akin Made A Mistake Did Reporters Correct Him?

| August 21, 2012

Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin, in an interview for St. Louis’s KTVI, said something nearly every functioning adult understands to be inaccurate, that women “rarely” conceive from “legitimate rape” because “the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.”

It’s a statement so bizarre and inaccurate that even the original interviewer has acknowledged it was a mistake not to follow up during the interview.

In the first day of stories surrounding Akin’s remarks it seems some reporters were so eager to talk about the political fallout that they never got around to even mentioning it wasn’t true. (Some reporters, although not all. A standout example is The Washington Post’s coverage which not only spelled out that the science is closed on this issue, but put Akin’s comments in context of others who have said similar things.)

But too often the initial reporting was similar to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” which only said that “journalists and bloggers” were asking which doctors Akin’s got his facts from? Rather than using their own reporting or authority to correct the inaccuracy, “Morning Edition” instead punted to the Washington Post which they said “cited a study that tens of thousands of women become pregnant through rape each year.”

An Associated Press story by Jim Salter quotes Akin, but never explicitly says his views are inaccurate. Relying instead on a quote from Mitt Romney as the only refutation of Akin’s misguided beliefs in how biology works. 

The New York Times story “Senate Candidate Provokes Ire With ‘Legitimate Rape’ Comment” manages to squeeze in that the remarks “provoked howls of outrage from Democrats and women’s rights organizations” (“howls” seems to be code for “it’s politically expedient to for them to be upset”), but no mention at all that Akin’s views are flat out wrong.

Most GOP-connected media pundits, or at least the ones not running for office, also seemed to have little interest correcting the misconception, instead complaining the “outrage” over the remarks is already greater than their offense.

But shouldn’t the public expect more clarity and accuracy from so-called legacy media? There’s no wiggle room on this, just like the earth isn’t flat and the sun doesn’t rise in the West, women can and do get pregnant from rape. Reporters have studies to back them up on this if they need it, but anyone with a functioning grasp of biology or world history already knows this.

The most boneheaded response from a non-politically connected media personality was probably Politico reporter David Catanese, whose initial reaction wasn’t to point out how wrong Akin was but have a debate about what he might have meant, like maybe some rapes aren’t “real.” What’s the science, he asks, on real rapes not causing pregnancy? The population of Twitter seemed to get mightily offended that Catanese wanted to show how everyone was just misunderstanding Akin’s actual words. For a short while Catanese tried to argue that he was just talking about a narrow point (real rape verses those-who-lie-about-rape?) and folks were unfairly getting angry at him. He tweeted back that “The left is often 1st to shut down debate as ‘off limits’ when it deems so” and “So perhaps some can agree that all rapes that are reported are not actually rapes? Or are we gonna really deny that for PC sake?”

By the next morning however, Catanese gave up fighting about it, although with a statement that seemed to blame everyone’s response when he just wanted to have “nuanced conversation on highly charged issue on here.” Subsequently a public memo from Politico editor-in-chief John Harris, said that Catanese "crossed a line a reporter shouldn't cross on Twitter” requiring that they remove him from further Akin coverage.

If Monday’s news is any judge this story looks like it has legs. While it’s good to see some follow-up reporting, including Politico’s, have spent time debunking the inaccuracy, it’s still sad that in the initial reporting correcting flat-out inaccuracies, even in passing, wasn’t in many reporters’ stories. This should have been an easy call since it’s both easily debunked and widely accepted that women can get pregnant from rape.

Of course, while most people on the planet accept that fact, and Akin has since clarified that when he said “legitimate rape” he meant “forcible rape” – whatever that’s supposed to mean – his view is hardly unique. Dave Weigel of Slate mentions that Bryan Fischer from American Family Association took to Twitter to defend Akin and linked to a 1999 essay from the former president of the National Right to Life Committee that seems to hold the same belief as Akin.

Strange as it sounds, some people (apparently including someone who's been a member of the House of Representatives since 2001) do believe this is how biology works. If news reporters can’t bother to correct the record even once, then they should understand how such attitudes fester and sometimes become the unspoken basis for bills regarding rape victims.

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