2023 Shortlist

Google Maps Regularly Misleads People Searching for Abortion Clinics

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: Bloomberg News

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 2022-08-15

Language: English

Authors: Davey Alba, Jack Gillum, Cedric Sam
Editors: Sarah Frier and Yue Qiu
With assistance from: Christopher Cannon, Julia Love, Elizabeth L. T. Moore and Prarthana Prakash


Davey Alba and Jack Gillum are technology journalists based in New York and Washington D.C. Cedric Sam is a data visualization journalist in New York.

Project description:

Bloomberg exposed how services such as Google Maps and Search deliver misleading abortion-related information and how abortion foes collect data on people seeking pregnancy help online. Google changed their practices in response.

Impact reached:

Bloomberg’s data journalism reporting on abortion information provided by Google Maps and Google Search drew lawmakers’ attention and changed the tech company’s policy.

In August, Bloomberg published the story showing that in a quarter of abortion searches, Google Maps – the most widely used US navigation tool – led users to crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), non-medical organizations that seek to persuade women not to get abortions. In 13 states where abortion was newly criminalized, at least half of the top search results were for CPCs. Ten days later, Google said it will clearly label facilities in the US that provide abortions in search results and in Google Maps.

In September, Bloomberg published another story showing that Google didn’t do enough to clearly label when advertisers don’t offer medical services to terminate a pregnancy. In this joint analysis by Bloomberg and the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, we found that in many abortion-related searches, Google still doesn’t apply the labels for CPCs. That means Google is still collecting ad revenue from CPCs without disclosing that such places do not provide abortions or refer patients to clinics that do. In November, citing Bloomberg’s reporting, US Senators Mark Warner and Elissa Slotkin wrote to Google’s CEO to urge the end to deceptive advertising and misrepresentation in search results, and to ensure accurate information for those seeking abortion support.

Techniques/technologies used:

To determine a users’ experience looking for abortion-related information in all 50 states plus Washington, D.C., we wrote a script to generate Google search results by state. Those results were confirmed by searches using virtual private networks with location set to those states, as well as searches by Mechanical Turk workers located in those states.

That technique allowed us to create a database of 510 medical centers that appeared in the top 10 results for each state’s Google Maps. We then checked them against existing publicly available databases of crisis pregnancy centers and abortion clinics. We then confirmed those categorizations by making calls to experts and clinics themselves.

We built a quiz with Javascript and Svelte that asked readers to see if they could determine whether something was an abortion clinic or a crisis pregnancy center simply by looking at their website. We randomized the visual examples from the database of 510 medical centers that we built for reporting. That quiz was a crucial tool for readers to understand how someone could be easily manipulated by inaccurate results – even though Google, through its advertising business, knows which clinics do and don’t provide abortions.

Context about the project:

A historic rollback in reproductive rights turned Google, Snapchat and other tech firms into gatekeepers for information on health care in moments of crisis and confusion. We investigated whether consumers would be well-served by the answers and found that the tech companies had avoided improving the accuracy of their information despite years of warning from advocacy groups and journalists. Bad information could have serious health implications for those in states with new time limits on legal abortion especially.

The Bloomberg reporters wanted to be the first to quantify and define the tech firms’ lapses, so that the companies could see how they were failing pregnant people at their most vulnerable.
We needed to figure out how the Roe reversal led to geographic inequality in information for the users of tech products, as multiple states outlawed abortion or restricted access to care. We were based in New York, California and Washington, D.C., but found technical ways to understand the experience of someone using their phone to set up an appointment for an abortion in Florida or Texas, for instance.

In order to accurately map and quantify the results for readers, we went through a meticulous fact-checking process to define which options online were, in fact, crisis pregnancy centers as opposed to legitimate abortion clinics. We cross-checked multiple databases and made calls directly to organizations across the country that advertised abortions.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Data availability is always a challenge when reporting on tech companies. These companies collect so much data from their users but there is rarely any good data available to measure their accountability. The lesson we learned from this story is that through innovative data collection and meticulous fact-checking, it is possible to shed light on these big players and keep them accountable.

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