What Isn’t Reported Counts As Much As What Is

Yesterday, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an investigative report describing as “unusual” the process by which the Food and Drug Administration in May 2004 decided to deny over-the-counter status to the emergency contraceptive drug, Plan B (aka the “morning after pill”).

Let’s take a look at the press coverage — ahem — the morning after.

To most news outlets, from the Washington Times to the Los Angeles Times, the GAO report was the news — specifically, the four “aspects” of the approval process that the GAO deemed “unusual” (including that the FDA officials who would normally sign the approval or rejection letter disagreed with the decision not to approve Plan B for over-the-counter sale and did not sign the letter in this case, and that the FDA’s “high-level management was more involved in the review of Plan B” than in similar applications).

Not so at the Associated Press, where Lauran Neergaard opted to lead her report on the GAO report as follows: “Lawmakers are again accusing the Food and Drug Administration of putting politics over science in the long-running saga over whether the morning-after pill should sell without a prescription.”

By leading with “lawmakers’” reactions to the report, Neergaard frames the story as — and reduces the story to — one of partisan “accusations” (and really, what better way to guarantee that readers will tune out and that their eyes will glaze over than by commencing a story with the words “lawmakers are again accusing …”?).

Did “lawmakers” make “accusations” in light of the report’s findings?” Yes. (Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., for one, yesterday fired off a letter-full to the secretary of health and human services.) Is that newsworthy? Sure (and Waxman certainly hopes so). But the Boston Globe, for example, saves the lawmakers’ accusations for the sixth paragraph of its story, focusing first on some of the report’s key findings. FoxNews.com runs Neergaard’s AP piece but rewrites the lead to focus on the report itself (before quickly turning to the partisan finger-pointing). To the AP’s Neergaard we say: You owe it to readers to report (or summarize, or at least hint at) what the report found before you tell them how the lawmakers who requested the report reacted to its findings.

Which leads us to another bone we have to pick with the coverage. The New York Times reports that Rep. Waxman and others “charged” in their letter to the secretary of health and human services that the FDA “contravened federal records laws” by deleting the former FDA commissioner’s morning-after-pill-related email messages and written correspondence. And did these acts contravene federal records laws? Or, what would such a contravention entail (in other words, is such a charge plausible)? The Times doesn’t tell us — nor do the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe or the AP — allowing the Democrats’ charge to hang out there, unchecked.

When it comes to contraception — or any politically fraught topic — there will never be a shortage of quotable “charges” and “accusations.” What seems to be in short supply, sadly, are reporters who are willing to examine them critically.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.