Watchdog: NPR Got It Wrong Covering Catholic Contraceptive Use

Edward Schumacher-Matos, the ombudsman for National Public Radio (NPR), wrote Tuesday that NPR erred in its reporting on contraceptive use among Catholic women.

Schumacher-Matos cites errors made by NPR in two disputed stories.

"Social conservatives in the blogosphere were right in catching NPR mistakes in the citing of a public opinion poll by Planned Parenthood and of a study by the Guttmacher Institute, both on contraception and Catholics," Schumacher-Matos wrote.

This first incident happened when NPR was reporting on the controversy over the Obama administration's birth control mandate, which requires even religious institutions with moral objections to provide health insurance that covers contraception, sterilization and abortifacient drugs.

In a Feb. 7 episode of "All Things Considered," reporter Scott Horsely cited a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling (PPP) finding that 53 percent of Catholic voters support the administration's mandate. Horsely did not report, however, that the poll was commissioned by Planned Parenthood, which engages in pro-abortion advocacy and supports the mandate.

"Having paid for many polls myself on behalf of The Wall Street Journal," Schumacher-Matos wrote, "I know that the questions are worked out between the client and the professional polling firm, giving the sponsor final say over exactly what is being measured. Influence over the question obviously gives you influence over the answer. I am not suggesting that Planned Parenthood loaded the dice in this poll, but its role should have been made clear."

In an email to Schumacher-Matos, Horsely admitted that he was aware of Planned Parenthood's involvement and made a mistake in not reporting it.

Horsely said he trusted the poll for three reasons: PPP, a Democratic polling organization, is reputable, the question wording seemed "neutral" to him, and another poll, conducted by Public Religion Research Institute, showed similar results.

Schumacher-Matos pointed out, though, that the PPP poll uses a small sample, 359 respondents. The small sample size means that the margin of error is large, plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. While the results were reported as a "majority of Catholics," when taking the margin of error into account, the true number could be less than 50 percent. Schumacher-Matos spoke to a public opinion research expert who said that the results should have been reported as "people being divided."

Plus, the sample was of "Catholic voters" but the results were reported as all Catholics.

In the second story, reporter Don Gonyea said, without citing his source, that "98 percent of Catholic women use birth control at some point in their lifetimes," in an episode of "Morning Edition" on Feb. 10. Many other reporters were citing the same statistic at the time.

The source was the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion advocacy organization. Plus, as The Christian Post recently reported, the data did not show what Gonyea reported it showed.

"But if you think about it – if you think about virgins, the extremely devout, older women, etc. – the 98 percent figure seems highly unlikely. And it is. It comes from an error in the press release of the report's findings," Schumacher-Matos wrote.

The poll that Guttmacher Institute used only looks at Catholic women between the ages of 15 and 44 who have had sex at least once in their lives.

"Did NPR mislead Catholics on public opinion such that it fueled a bandwagon effect supporting the birth control mandate in opposition to the bishops? We will never know for sure," he wrote.

Schumacher-Matos concluded by advising reporters to be "as careful as possible to define just what is being measured, how it compares to other measures, and what the margin of error is.

"This, too, must also be remembered: Polls are indications of public sentiment, not hard facts or predictions. Proceed with caution."

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