What are we supposed to make of newsrooms instructing their employees not to comment on current events like abortion and domestic terrorism?
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To be a person in this country who believes in the right to abortion is to be in a constant state of righteous fury. That’s been doubly true since a draft memo of a Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade leaked on May 3, sending many into a tailspin of grief, anger, fear, and terrifying hypotheticals. Abortion will be criminalized in at least 13 states as soon as Roe is overturned, and the restrictions will cause instant harm and chaos. And it’s the immediacy of the threat that made it so troubling to see a number of national news outlets send out memos in the last two weeks cautioning their employees against publicly voicing their concerns about life as Roe crumbles, signaling a willingness to abdicate their fierce commitment to covering this human rights crisis.
A decision to overturn the landmark 1973 reproductive legislation was expected this summer, but when Politico dropped the leaked memo showing that five conservative justices had already officially made up their minds (with a sixth likely to join them), the timeline on processing what it meant for abortion to be criminalized was expedited—particularly for those living in states where abortion restrictions hadn’t already invaded their lives. Impromptu rallies sprung up around the country so people could exercise their right to protest, but almost immediately, other beneficiaries of the First Amendment—a handful of newsrooms based in cities with more lax abortion policy—made a point of letting employees know they were expected to keep their opinions on abortion private. It exposed a great disconnect between covering the news and living the news, and for journalists living and working in states where it’s long been obvious overturning Roe was the goal, they’ve had a head start on striking the right balance.
In the immediate aftermath of the SCOTUS memo leak, NPR, Scripps News, the Associated Press, Vox, and Axios each issued all-staff memos cautioning employees not to publicly weigh in on abortion.
“In an increasingly fragmented media industry, Scripps stands out for its independence and objectivity,” Scripps Deputy General Counsel and Chief Ethics Officer David Giles wrote to all news employees. “Being sensitive to conflicts of interest of all types is critical for our long-term sustainability and success.” And as the Washington Post’s Jeremy Barr first reported, Vox sent an email to its employees stating, “The most powerful thing you can do in moments like this is to create the kind of work that we do best.”
The message made leadership’s point of view clear: Abortion is strictly a political issue, and we don’t want people—right-wing trolls, mainly—accusing us of bias. And major outlets have shown in the past they have no problem kowtowing to these trolls. Take, for example, Lauren Wolfe, a former New York Times editor who tweeted on Inauguration Day 2021, “Biden landing at Joint Base Andrews now. I have chills.” Right-wing social media went berserk, claiming the tweet revealed a liberal bias on Wolfe’s part, and two days later, she was fired. Expressing a human emotion proved a bridge too far from the magical island of objectivity.
Donna Ladd founded the Jackson Free Press in 2001, where she served as the editor-in-chief, and left in 2020 to launch the Mississippi Free Press, a nonprofit newsroom. While at the Jackson Free Press, Ladd witnessed the evolution of the fight over abortion from the perspective of a member of the media in a deeply conservative state, and says the writers of these memos have “the eye on the wrong ball.”
“I don’t want to hire automatons who don’t have any kind of views on anything or express them, I think that’s absurd and I think that’s dishonest,” Ladd says. “I think it’s more honest if reporters, journalists and editors aren’t hiding that we have experiences or have concerns about an issue.”
A major court case from Mississippi, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health organization, sits at the center of the likely overturn of Roe, but for Ladd, this is charted territory. Her Jackson newsroom cut its teeth, she says, on a story directly related to abortion: In 2011, there was a fierce battle over a proposed amendment to the Mississippi state constitution to define a person as “every human being from the moment of fertilization, cloning, or the functional equivalent thereof.” They went to great pains to speak with people on all sides of the issue, and were surprised to find that anti-abortion didn’t necessarily mean pro-personhood. “We were rising above the two-sided frame into ‘what is this?’ and ‘what are its potential effects?,’” Ladd recalls, “and our obsession was not to find people to report on it who didn’t have personal views.”
The newsroom memos also renewed the age-old debate about what it means to be an objective journalist in an age where a one size fits all approach simply doesn’t work. “In doing so, newsroom leaders reverted to a traditional framing of neutrality that assumes the public will lose confidence in their news providers should some of their journalists (not opinion staff) publicly discuss their personal beliefs or experiences on abortion,” NPR’s public editor Kelly McBride wrote for Poynter.org. “In several newsrooms, these memos reignited the often generational conflict that broke out after the police murder of George Floyd. Some journalists frame the conversation as one of human rights, while traditionalists want to apply a lens of neutrality.”
In Axios’s abortion-related memo, chief executive Jim VandeHei expressed his concern over employees voicing opinions on a “highly politicized topic, with very specific policies being debated,” but failed to mention how it differed from his very own guidance from 2020 during the racial justice protests. At the time, he wrote, “We proudly support and encourage you to exercise your rights to free speech, press, and protest. If you’re arrested or meet harm while exercising these rights, Axios will stand behind you and use the Family Fund to cover your bail or assist with medical bills.”
The earlier memo was remarkable in that it not only encouraged employees to share their opinions, but to put their bodies on the line for their beliefs. Comparing the two memos also reveals newsroom leaders’ inability to see the connection between racial justice and abortion rights, where poor women of color are much more likely to be impacted. Abortion is an all-encompassing, deeply personal and emotional human rights issue, and to expect members of the media to sublimate their feelings about it is unrealistic at best, and cruel at worst. It also puts into sharp relief the fact that most newsrooms have been and continue to be run by one type of person: privileged white men disconnected from activism on the ground.
Ladd acknowledges that people reporting from states like Mississippi—or the other trigger states of Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming—have a bit of an advantage over national media at this moment because they’ve witnessed the slow dismantling of abortion rights at the state level for decades. And none of this has come as a surprise.
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