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Ombudsman Mailbag: Planned Parenthood

In recent weeks, listeners have written with many concerns about NPR's coverage of Planned Parenthood. Funding for the organization has received renewed political scrutiny following the drip-drip-drip release beginning in July of highly-edited sting videos, which critics say show organization employees selling fetal tissue; Planned Parenthood officials say the tissue has been donated, not sold.

Some listeners were concerned early on that NPR was not covering the story in depth; a search shows more than a dozen stories since mid-July and those concerns appear to have mostly abated (with one exception noted at the end of this column). Others including Jeff Bellin of Salem, Mass., believe that every story, even those that focus on the funding debate such as this Weekend Edition Saturday conversationbetween substitute host Linda Wertheimer and correspondent Jennifer Ludden, should make note that the controversy was kicked off by videos that were edited to make a point. (The introduction calls them "sting videos" but does not say that they were edited.)

Bellin wrote:

"I have a big problem with NPR's news framing of the Planned Parenthood videos that have been created and circulated. Whenever I have heard a story about them on NPR, I hear them prefaced as the "controversial" videos, and no mention of them actually be doctored, which they have been. And they have been doctored for effect, to undermine Planned Parenthood."

Some listeners, in letters to me and in the online comments at NPR.org, also raised a separate question about a brief final comment by Ludden in that Weekend Edition Saturday conversation. This was the exchange:

WERTHEIMER: Now, in the states that have already defunded Planned Parenthood, can you see a big impact?

LUDDEN: You absolutely can. Texas - a study just out this spring - found that a quarter of the state's family-planning clinics have closed. The ones who are left are only serving half as many women as before. The state's own study this year found 30,000 fewer women in Texas getting healthcare through its programs. That means fewer cancer screenings, less testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and, of course, less birth control. Health experts say that the upshot of this will be more unplanned births and more abortions. In Indiana, which has also cut funding to Planned Parenthood, you might recall a big story this spring of an HIV outbreak there. The government called it an epidemic. That happened in the county where the state cuts forced a Planned Parenthood clinic to shut down two years ago.

The linkage of the closing of the Indiana clinic and the HIV outbreak was "a very dubious association," wrote Kevin Howard from Smithfield, Ky., a sentiment also expressed by others. He argued that the outbreak was "due to rampant IV drug use" that screening would not have stopped.

Ludden told me by email:

"The national Planned Parenthood officials I spoke with did sound certain of a connection between the closing of their clinic in Scott County, Indiana, and the HIV crisis two years later, and they include it in 'fact sheets' they send to media. They point out that the clinic there was the only place in the county that provided HIV education, testing and counseling. A link between the clinic closing and the outbreak was also made to me separately, without my asking about it, by Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center. She told me that 'there was no other clinic that could step up and provide the HIV education and testing that Planned Parenthood was providing.'"

Ludden said she did not feel there was a need to see an academic study proving the link, since it's unlikely research would have been completed yet, given that the outbreak only happened this past spring. But she said: "I looked to see what local media had said and did find mention of the clinic closing in some news reports and op-eds." She added that she also found this interview that Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams gave to NPR, and found his first answer relevant:

MELISSA BLOCK: Earlier I spoke with Indiana's State Health Commissioner Dr. Jerome Adams, and he told me, prior to the outbreak, there were very few doctors in the county - none of whom were comfortable treating patients with HIV.

JEROME ADAMS: A lot of the older doctors in particular have not been trained in treating HIV patients. This is not your mother or your father's HIV. I grew up in the Ryan White era. HIV was a death sentence. The prescribing was very complicated. Now we've got one-day regimens. And people, if they get promptly into treatment, have a life expectancy that can exceed 70 years of age. And so it's important that doctors understand HIV is not a death sentence, treatment is not as complicated as it once was, and we can get pretty much any doctor up to speed pretty quickly in terms of caring for patients for HIV.

Ludden said, "To me, that validated the proposition that having a clinic that DID education, screen, and counsel people on HIV might have made a difference."

Nonetheless, she added, explaining her comments: "This was, however, a very short segment on a complex issue. Instead of simply stating the main point, I would have liked to have given context and caveat — providing attribution for the link between the closing and the outbreak, noting the lack of hard evidence, and also explaining that this had been the only clinic in the county doing HIV education and testing. Without time for all that, it may well have been a better decision to drop the point altogether."

I agree. Without hard evidence, Ludden's statement needed more explanation than she was able to provide in just the brief seconds at the end of the three-minute segment.

Edmund Berry, a listener from an undisclosed city in Ohio, meanwhile, wrote with questions about Amita Kelly's Aug. 14 online-only piece "Fact Check: Was Planned Parenthood Started To 'Control' The Black Population?" The piece was in response to a claim by Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson that Planned Parenthood puts most of its clinics in black neighborhoods for population control reasons.

Berry wrote:

"There was a statistic quoted that 14% of patients of Planned Parenthood were black but I am curious why for the fact check element of the story the percent of abortions by race at Planned Parenthood was not reported and only the percent of patients that were black serviced by Planned Parenthood was reported? Isn't the more relevant statistic the distribution by race of abortions performed by the clinics?

For a story of this nature, why would the percent of patients receiving the specific procedure under discussion by race not be reported?

For fact check stories of this nature, is there a systematic methodology for reviewing candidates' statements (systematic review of the academic literature for finding multiple estimates of the self described neighborhood where the clinics reside - or utilize data analysis that matches county level census data to racial composition to get actual racial breakdowns in the county/zipcode where a clinic resides)? My only concern is that the fact checker could quote one statistic or study while ignoring a wider body of research or not taking the time to properly data mine publicly available data."

Kelly's response:

"The reader is correct to point out that the percent of abortions performed by race at Planned Parenthood clinics would have been an appropriate statistic to include in the fact check. However, Planned Parenthood has not released these numbers, nor would they provide them to NPR. I could, and should, have noted that in my story. The organization did provide us with the percent of their patients who are black, as of 2013, which I did include in the story.

The portion of Carson's statement in question was: 'you find most of their clinics in black neighborhoods,' so I focused much of my research on the placement of Planned Parenthood clinics that provide abortion services. I did do a wide and deep review of literature and research into the neighborhoods of Planned Parenthood clinics and other abortion providers. The most exact statistic I could find, which I included in the piece, was a demographic survey of all abortion providers from the non-partisan Guttmacher Institute. I found no evidence that passed our journalistic muster that the organization's clinics are targeting black communities. Planned Parenthood would not share specific racial demographic information on where its clinics are located. I reached out to Ben Carson's campaign asking if it could point me to research that backs up his statement, but the campaign did not respond to my request for comment.

We could have mined the data from the site and matched it with census data, though that is not a simple, nor or quick project, and this was a time-sensitive news story. We may take it up in the future.

As for our fact checking in general, we do take immense care to dive into a wide body of research, consult experts who may point us in new directions, and analyze the data ourselves. We will continue to fact check statements made on the campaign trail, as we feel it is a service to our listeners. We are currently formalizing and will release a fact checking framework sometime soon."

I'll write more about that fact checking framework once it is made public.

Finally, a listener named Juana Oner, who said she was from the "Hartford area" of Connecticut, wanted to know why a search of NPR.org turned up no coverage of the protests at more than 300 Planned Parenthood clinics this past weekend.

Gerry Holmes, an NPR deputy managing editor who was the editor on duty that day, told me, "The network was notified of the planned events, but that information did not make it to me as duty editor for Saturday. And on the day of the protests, I didn't get notice from any of our member stations about the events in their cities and didn't see any other media reporting either. It turns out our member station in Boston, WBUR, did do one news piece on the Boston protests and Reuters did a story, as well. If we had seen more reports, we would have assessed and responded accordingly. NPR News has covered this story extensively over the last few weeks and plans to continue coverage going forward. Thank you for bringing this to our attention."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elizabeth Jensen was appointed as NPR's Public Editor in January 2015. In this role, she serves as the public's representative to NPR, responsible for bringing transparency to matters of journalism and journalism ethics. The Public Editor receives tens of thousands of listener inquiries annually and responds to significant queries, comments and criticisms.