The Well Actually
Newsrooms Need a Primer on Abortion Reporting
Roe has been under siege for decades, yet mainstream journalists are just now playing catch up—and it's leading to a lot of misinformation that could have dire consequences.
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In the month since a leaked draft opinion revealed that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, I’ve been contacted by a handful of mainstream and legacy journalists asking me to engage in legally risky activities around self-managed abortion, a beat I’ve been covering since 2015, and an issue I worked on for two years leading the communications team at If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice.
None of these journalists were people with whom I had any prior relationship. None of them initially contacted me through secure channels, nor volunteered information about what protections or legal support their publications are prepared to offer me or my sources. Some pressured me to put them in touch with people who’ve had self-managed abortions, or who support others in having self-managed abortions, after I turned them down myself. A couple were not even aware that a woman in South Texas was arrested on murder charges for allegedly self-managing her care just two months ago. That’s how little preparation had been put into asking a stranger: Will you put your freedom on the line for my professional benefit?
Whether it’s entitlement or ignorance or a dangerous combination of both, this kind of cavalier approach to reporting is bound to either directly land someone in jail or provide a motivated prosecutor with the building blocks they need to target someone for ending their pregnancy. Anti-abortion politicians, police, and prosecutors have been ramping up pregnancy criminalization efforts for years; the end of Roe will be a boon for them. Journalists—even well-meaning ones—need not give them an assist.
The last few weeks have demonstrated just how far our industry—including and especially mainstream and legacy publications—has to go when it comes to covering abortion. Some of this is unavoidable; when the SCOTUS draft opinion dropped, a whole lot of journalists who’d never covered the issue before were tasked overnight with unpacking and contextualizing the SCOTUS leak for readers and viewers. This is part of the job in an era of understaffed newsrooms: When a national news event creates an all-hands-on-deck moment, many reporters and editors must take a crash course in new or unfamiliar subject matter.
But that means taking extra care, not barging into a stranger’s DMs or inbox with suggestions that they break the law or expose someone else to legal risk for a story now that abortion headlines are hot. The fall of Roe has been on the horizon for years, if not decades, and yet newsrooms have not prioritized putting writers on the beat. If we can’t have consistent coverage from dedicated reporters, we must strive that much harder to do right by our audiences.
The consequences of failing to do so are serious. Poor news reporting on abortion tends to privilege the perspectives of those who seek to outlaw it, pretending toward objectivity but more usually resulting in chronic both-sides-ism that discounts scientific and medical expertise. Journalists unfamiliar with the beat (and some who really ought to know better) unquestioningly adopt anti-abortion propaganda language, such as describing anti-abortion advocates as “pro-life,” adopting language like “heartbeat bill” in lieu of more accurate descriptors such as “abortion ban,” or calling anyone who gets an abortion “the mother.” Reporters fascinated by anti-abortion leaders and lobbyists attempt to humanize those who would ban abortion, treating powerful, billionaire-backed political power players as if they’re members of a high school prayer group driven only be sincere religious beliefs. And service journalism that does not serve those it purports to serve is bad enough; in the case of self-managed abortion, it may do them real harm.
It’s not just reporters new to the beat who get this stuff wrong, and even journalists who openly side with reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates have made major missteps. New York Magazine recently published a much-lauded feature package on abortion access that repeatedly conflates clinically prescribed medication abortion with self-managed medication abortion, an oversight that is confusing at best, and which at worst will put people who self-manage their care at serious legal risk. There were other issues, too: a map of U.S. clinic locations showed providers that have been forced to close, or which no longer offer abortion services. And an accompanying web feature, an English-only search engine meant to help “anyone” find abortion clinics, launched containing serious errors misstating the legal landscape of abortion in states across the country. None of the package’s contributors appear to live in the 26 states expected to ban abortion when Roe falls.
And it’s really that last part—that so little abortion coverage is produced by and for people most harmed by abortion bans and restrictions—that gets to the heart of why we journalists so often miss the mark. Media consolidation, publication buyouts by billionaires and corporations, and the whiteness of the field (including the whiteness of its critics, myself included) all make it less likely that those most affected by attacks on abortion access— women of color, low-income people, young people, and LGBTQ folks—will be the ones penning bylines on the subject. More likely, they will have their reporting replicated and uncredited by more privileged prestige journalists, or pushed out of newsrooms eager to tick a “diversity, equity, and inclusion” box without doing the work to support marginalized writers and editors.
There are many, many resources available for journalists and assignment editors on the abortion beat, and many places to start. Prestige publications can stop confusing saviorism with substance and instead partner with and promote Black, Indigenous, and People of Color–led newsrooms, and importantly, pay for the privilege. Journalists can stop re-creating resources, trading in tragedy porn, and treating politicians as if they’re medical experts. They can stop hounding the providers and funders who are navigating abortion bans to provide on-demand access to patients and clients and instead hold accountable anti-abortion politicians who won’t give the public straight answers about their plans to criminalize abortion providers and pregnant people. They can stop pressuring those who are already putting their bodies and lives at risk supporting self-managed abortion to let media outlets publicize their means and methods.
These are not problems unique to abortion. Both-sides-ism is a scourge in coverage of the climate emergency and mass shootings and a host of other issues that continue to be dominated by science-deniers, religious zealots, white supremacists, misogynists, and other champions of regressive politics. We saw it with the rush to “understand” Trump voters in 2016. We see it day in and day out at the New York Times, whose coverage trends have a ripple effect at publications around the world, which has repeatedly given outsize time, space, and credence to some of the worst actors in the American political and cultural spheres. But we are about to see a hell of a lot more abortion coverage in the coming weeks as the final Supreme Court decision comes down, and there’s no time like right now to right this ship.
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