Abortion could be a major factor in 2020 election, but media conversation is largely event-driven

A recent Monmouth poll found that a third of adults nationwide say the issue of abortion is either “very important” or the “most important” issue in how they vote for President in 2020. Recent state legislative efforts––on both the pro-life and pro-choice sides––have heightened the issue’s salience.

Certus insights conducted a Snap Audit of print and online news media around the topic to understand the extent of the media conversation on abortion and sub-topics. Our analysis was based on the number of social engagements (likes, shares, retweets, and comments) that has been generated.  The audit examines stories published over the past year, between June 26, 2018 – June 25, 2019.


Our findings:

Over the past year, there have been 656,165 news stories about abortion, which generated an estimated 148,811,899 social engagements (likes, shares, retweets, and comments).

More than 4 out of 5 news stories occurred in online/web-based news publications, (82% of the conversation) followed by print newspapers (11%), TV/Radio (5%), magazines (2%), and news agency sites and press releases (1%).  Four of the top 5 sources by volume of social engagements (likes, shares, retweets, comments) are from sources with a conservative orientation or that emphasize a pro-life stance: (15.7M total social engagements), (15.2M total social engagements), (10.3M total social engagements), and (7.3M total social engagements).  The New York Times is the only mainstream news publication to break into the top 5 sources by social engagements, with 7.6M total social engagements.

The volume of the conversation varies throughout the year, with event-driven spikes in the number of abortion-related stories.  The conversation spiked in response to legal commentary on Roe v. Wade, court rulings, legislative events, or Supreme Court nominations. In fact, the legal conversation around abortion rights accounts for 465,329 stories in the past year, or 71% of the total conversation.  Justice Kavanaugh is mentioned in 18% of the total abortion conversation (115,174 mentions), and in 25% of the conversation around abortion and legal battles.  Interestingly, Planned Parenthood is mentioned in only 104,992 stories in the past year, or 16% of the conversation.  When examining the legal conversation only, Planned Parenthood is mentioned even less frequently–187,708 times.

There were a six event- driven spikes in the past year. The first three spikes (instances with exceptionally high volume of stories) occur in 2018 and are driven by changes to the U.S. Supreme Court be it Anthony Kennedy’s retirement, Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh, or Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings.  The remaining three spikes occurred in 2019 and vary in their subject matter.  The first peak in conversation occurred in February and was driven by President Trump’s State of the Union Address.  The second two peaks were driven by Alabama’s fetal heartbeat law, which prohibits abortions after 6 weeks of pregnancy, and other state legislation action.

Here are the spike dates:

  • June 25, 2018:  Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the supreme court 24,079 stories.
  • July 9, 2018: President Trump’s Nomination of generated 20,347 stories.
  • September. 6, 2018:  Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings Generated 22,966 stories.
  • February 4th, 2019:  President Trump’s State of the Union Address, generated 18,882 stories.
  • May 13, 2019:  Generated 38,406 stories – Alabama and other states adopt fetal heart-beat bills.
  • May 27, 2019: 33,668 stories expanding apportion laws and further stories signing fetal heartbeat bills, including Georgia’s abortion ban.

The top terms (words and phrases that appear regularly within news stories) associated with the general media conversation focus on “President Donald Trump” (27% of the conversation), the U.S. Supreme Court (11%), “Supreme Court nominee” (8%), “Justice Anthony Kennedy” (7%), and “Supreme Court Justice” (6%).

Most engaged stories in the past year Include:

  • Trump Backs Push for Bible Classes in Schools – CBS News, January 28, 2019
    6,993,051 Facebook Interactions including 735,372 shares.  Reshared by American Patriot Nation (87,375 interactions), American Renewal Project (71,820 interactions), and Judge Jeanine Pirro Has Fans (60,186 interactions). The story covers state legislators to allow elective bible classes within public schools in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Virginia, and West Virginia.   The article further profiles Evangelicals and other Christian groups who broadly support Trump’s stance on social issues, including abortion.
  • ‘A Sad and Evil Day’:  New York Legalizes Abortion Up to Baby’s Birth Day on Anniversary of Roe V. Wade – CBN News, the Christian Perspective, January 23, 2019
    625,473 Facebook Interactions including 59,893 shares.  Reshared by CBN News’s Facebook page (126,509 interactions), Trump & The Great America (91,569 interactions), Ask Dr. Brown (25,007 interactions). This story recaps New York State legislature’s passing of a bill that allows women to abort their pregnancy up to birth.  The story takes a distinct pro-life stance and expresses outrage at the passing of this bill.  It quotes a number of pro-life activists as well as Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
  • New York Senate Passes Bill Legalizing Abortions Up to Birth – Life, January 22, 2019
    Reshared by LifeNews.Com (42,328 interactions), My Faith Votes (30,499 interactions), and Support Tebow’s Super Bowl Ad (9,938 interactions). This article also recaps the passing of the New York State bill allowing women to abort her pregnancy until she is at full term.  It provides slightly more detail around the bill.  The article quotes both state legislators who voted for the bill as well as pro-life organizations.



  1. Conversation around the abortion issue in the news media is primarily event-driven.
  2. Nearly three-quarters of the conversation is related to ongoing legal battles at both the national and state levels.
  3. The most engaged sources (sources that generate high volumes of likes, shares, retweets) are either conservative publications or publications that advocate a pro-life stance.
  4. Because the conversation is largely event-driven, there has been little time or opportunity to create a wider and deeper understanding of the issue. That is something both sides need to consider. Perhaps public information campaigns designed to educate and shape public opinion should be scheduled between events. That would make sense in terms of setting the stage before the conversation spikes. Currently, advocacy organizations see event-driven conversation spikes as opportunities for mobilization and recruitment, and not education and public information, which limits their ability to expand their base of support. To move public opinion, both sides should talk more often to the persuadable public at times when they’re listening, and not just when they’re reacting to emotional events.

Source: Monmouth Univ. June 12-17

The dates examined for this media Audit is June 26, 2018 to June 25, 2019, within publicly available, English-language, U.S. news media.  It does not account for the social media conversation or individual social media posts.  

Natalie Copeland