In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

One of the biggest surprises about US Rep. Todd Akin’s comments on rape was how long it took most mainstream media to state the obvious: Akin is wrong.

In case you missed it, Akin, who is the Republican Congressman running for the Missouri Senate, told St. Louis television station KTVI



First of all, from what I understand from doctors [pregnancy from rape] is really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

In other words, if a woman is pregnant, she probably wasn’t raped. Because if she were actually raped, her body wouldn’t let her get pregnant.

This is so false that it’s the equivalent of saying that a woman gets pregnant if she stands under a full moon—something people used to believe.

Perhaps reporters thought that the obvious wrongness of the statement meant that they didn’t have to dispute it. Instead, most (for example, The New York Times and the Kansas City Star followed the pattern of the Associated Press: They reported what Akin said, then followed it with a response from Akin’s opponent, incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill and/or reactions from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

Stories like these focused on how the “legitimate rape” comment would affect the Akin-McCaskill race, and more broadly, wondered whether the brouhaha would affect the Presidential election by increasing Obama’s hold on female voters.

These are legitimate places to go in stories about political figures running for office. But it is more important to explain—in the first coverage, not in a second-day followup or a blog post—that Akin got his facts wrong. It might be clear to the reporter that Akin’s views are false. But if he, a political leader, holds them, others likely do, too.

If we don’t provide evidence to dispute Akin’s claim, then the story reads like this: Akin said something controversial about abortion, his opponent disagreed, and both opinions carry equal weight.

That’s not journalism. That’s he-said/she-said playground reporting.

The fix is simple: Give the correct facts right away.

CBSNews.com was one of the few outlets to get the right idea, by adding this last paragraph:

Although there appear to be no exact figures, RAINN, an anti-sexual violence charity, has said medical reports indicate that about 5 percent of all unprotected, one-time sexual encounters end up in pregnancy, and that percent can be applied to rape victims. Since the FBI estimates (PDF) that about 75,720 US women were raped in 2009, that means as many as 3,786 pregnancies resulted from the assaults.

The Washington Post did an even more thorough day-of story online, noting that the view Akin expressed was not uncommon in conservative circles but “According to a 1996 study, approximately 32,000 pregnancies result from rape annually in the United States, and about 5 percent of rape victims are impregnated.”

Unfortunately, neither of these outlets seem to be using solid numbers. You’ll notice the giant discrepancy between those two figures: The 3,786 pregnancies stemming from rape cited by CBS and the 32,000 pregnancies reported by the Post.

A more useful and nuanced figure was reported by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a nonprofit organization of women’s healthcare physicians:

Each year in the US, 10,000-15,000 abortions occur among women whose pregnancies are a result of reported rape or incest. An unknown number of pregnancies resulting from rape are carried to term.

The ACOG added that “There is absolutely no veracity to the claim that “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to shut that whole thing down.”

Nevertheless, both CBS and the Post were on the right track. It was only on Tuesday—two days after the original story—that most other news organizations joined them, finally tackling the substance of Akin’s comments. This resulted in some great stories, like this one at ABC News and this one at CNN. But both these stories were relegated to the health section of their websites instead of the national news section, where they belonged.

Whether women can get pregnant from rape is not a partisan debate—it is a matter of fact. They can. Unfortunately, when public figures say something often enough and loud enough, invidious untruths start to feel like facts to the public. They take on lives of their own.

To keep this from happening, Akin’s comment needed to be disputed immediately, in the same stories in which it was first reported. The political horserace stuff is all speculation—no one knows whether or how Akin’s comments will affect his Senate race or any other race. But real women will be hurt in real ways if Akin’s untruth persists. And that’s a fact.

 

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.