Abstract: Documenting Disparity: Coverage of Maternal Mortality in Select U.S. Newspapers (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Documenting Disparity: Coverage of Maternal Mortality in Select U.S. Newspapers

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Margaret Mary Downey, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, Tulane University, LA
Background and Purpose: News coverage shapes public understanding of social problems and health crises. During the COVID-19 pandemic, maternal mortality was singled out for particular attention by mainstream news outlets, reflecting growing professed dismay over the United States’ high maternal mortality rates. However, there is limited research on news coverage of maternal health more broadly and none to date on news coverage of maternal mortality during COVID-19.

Methods: Data included news and opinion articles containing the term “maternal mortality” published in three major U.S. newspaper sources in between March 19th 2020 ( The first US state shelter-in-place order) and April 17th 2021 (the end of the 4th annual Black Maternal Health Week). I coded 108 unique pieces coded for type (e.g., feature, editorial), references to racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic health “disparity” or “inequity”, references to policy, lived experience, and basic maternal health data. Following principles of critical discourse analysis (CDA), particular attention was paid to social, political, and economic power relations and struggles for power.

Results: The lived experiences of women were featured in a minority of the articles (16%). The majority of articles (56%) connected maternal mortality to legislation (e.g., immigration policy, Medicaid) and/or a political campaign or politician (e.g., Elizabeth Warren, Vice President Kamala Harris). Of the articles that contained substantive discussion of maternal mortality, all discussed the racial and ethnic inequities therein, noting the striking and persistent inequities in outcomes for Black women compared to white women. All of the articles that contained substantive discussion of maternal mortality featured an analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on risk to pregnant women, birth plans, healthcare options, and challenges to getting adequate psychosocial support in the event of maternal mortality. Six articles in the sample contained “Black women” or “Black maternal health” in their headlines. Moreover, six articles featured or referenced celebrity women of color (e.g., Megan Thee Stallion, Meghan Markle, Chrissy Teigen) and their experiences with pregnancy. Maternal mortality is rarely discussed alongside other racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic-based health inequities that women of childbearing age experience, suggesting a narrow understanding of the ways in which preventing maternal mortality is connected to other issues of reproductive justice.

Conclusion and Implications: Findings highlight while there is increasing attention to maternal mortality as a health and political issue during COVID-19, the lived experiences of women are frequently left out of news coverage, similar to how other reproductive health issues are treated. Maternal mortality was frequently discussed as a standalone health concern rather than an issue of reproductive justice, revealing a potential opportunity for advocates to use mainstream news coverage as a platform to advance a reproductive justice-informed vision of maternal health. Given the agenda-setting impact of mainstream news coverage on public policy and overall public investment, advocates for reproductive justice could consider ways to harness a focus on the interlocking health crises of maternal mortality and COVID-19 to build broad support for public health and social welfare practices that centers those most impacted by maternal health inequities.