Less than a minute into the podcast Banned, which focuses on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban and its march to the U.S. Supreme Court, WWNO/WRKF reporter Rosemary Westwood makes a huge claim: that the court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade will reshape the country.
“I don’t think there’s a more fundamental choice you’d make as a person than whether to have children,” Westwood told Current. “If the country becomes a place where half the people get to make that choice within their state borders and the other half don’t … I don’t know what bigger schism you could create.”
According to a New York Times analysis, a total of 28 states are likely to see at least some tightening of abortion access after the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Center decision. Mississippi is one of 10 states where abortion is now banned. In coming years, the impact of these restrictions will reverberate not only through individuals’ lives and families, but through society as a whole.
“It’s overwhelming to try to journalistically think about how [you are] going to cover all the implications of this,” said Westwood, who has been reporting on abortion and reproductive health in the South for six years. “I just can’t even keep it all in my head at one time when I think about what this is going to mean.”
For two regional public radio collaboratives, it means hiring reporters specifically dedicated to covering reproductive health. The Gulf States Newsroom will base its newest reporter in Jackson, Miss., the epicenter of the case that ultimately toppled Roe v. Wade. In Lexington, Ky., a reporter will cover the issue from a regional perspective for Ohio Valley ReSource. Both collaboratives had reporters leave, which provided the opportunity to create the beats.
“It was really clear to us … that [the Dobbs decision] was just the beginning of the story,” said Priska Neely, managing editor of the Gulf States Newsroom.
More ‘boots on the ground’
While the Gulf States position is a one-year contract based at Mississippi Public Broadcasting, the Ohio Valley ReSource job is a full-time permanent role. Mike Savage, director and general manager of WEKU in Lexington, said the issue demands that level of attention.
“Especially in Appalachia and the Ohio Valley, where there are areas that are very poor, we feel that the need for reporting on this particular issue is really important,” Savage said. “If you have resources, there are lots of things you can do for reproductive health. A woman who does not have resources in a poor area of Appalachia has very limited options, and so the effects are going to be different.”
Both collaboratives serve vast rural areas in the South and Midwest, where the lion’s share of anti-abortion bills are concentrated. People in these areas are more likely to suffer from health conditions that make pregnancy more dangerous, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and kidney disease. These are also areas that tend to lack robust local news coverage.
“The overall mission of the Gulf States Newsroom is to build up reporting capacity in this region,” said Neely. “We saw an opportunity to have someone based here, to be able to provide sustained coverage as being really important.”
It’s an ongoing challenge for small and mid-size public radio newsrooms to invest in beat reporting. Both Neely and Savage said the regional collaborative model makes these relatively narrow beats possible from a financial perspective. Sharing a reporter across state lines also makes good editorial sense, as access to abortion and other reproductive health services is a regional issue.
“It’s never been, since I’ve been reporting on this, the case that you could report on your state and have it confined in that way. The impact of restrictions has been to push people out of state for a long time,” Westwood said. “If you don’t understand the geography of where clinics are and where people are, you can’t report on it.”
Legislation also crosses state lines. NPR National Correspondent Sarah McCammon reported as bills banning abortion at the first sign of cardiac activity, around 6 weeks, spread across the South and Midwest. McCammon said that while it’s important to keep an eye on these nationwide trends — national groups often coordinate both anti-abortion messaging and legislation — there is no substitution for reporters on the ground.
“This is the strength of the public radio system in general,” McCammon said. “As you see a further erosion of abortion access in these places, I think having more boots on the ground will be really important.”
Amid a flurry of activity in both state legislatures and courtrooms, the list of states where abortion is banned or strongly restricted continues to grow. For Aprile Rickert, health reporter at WFPL in Louisville, Ky., it feels a little like the early days of the pandemic, when almost every story was a COVID story.
“This is the news, and we will follow the news because it’s one of the biggest health stories,” said Rickert. “The coverage has been kind of nonstop.”
The Gulf States Newsroom’s new reporter in Jackson will cover not only incremental developments in the fight over abortion in Mississippi, but also the broad and varied impacts of the Supreme Court’s decision across the region.
“What are the ripple effects of this for overall health and access to healthcare, and then also for children as they grow up?” Neely asked. “We think a lot and talk a lot about the social determinants of health, so that’s definitely going to be baked into how we cover abortion and reproductive healthcare in general.”
Neely said the narrow beat offers the opportunity for a reporter to build trust with sources, which is particularly important when it comes to conversations around issues as intimate as abortion, pregnancy and parenting.
For another regional collaborative, the Mountain West News Bureau, the solution for reporting on the fallout of the Dobbs decision takes a different form. The Bureau is made up of 14 stations in six states along the spine of the Rocky Mountains, and coverage focuses on regional issues, such as drought, wildfires and now abortion.
“We have states that are moving to ban it, like Idaho, Wyoming, [and] Utah, and other states that are becoming sort of sanctuary states, like Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada,” said Managing Editor Dave Rosenthal. “So all of the reporters in our area need to be familiar with the issue.”
Like the Gulf States Newsroom and Ohio Valley ReSource, the Mountain West News Bureau serves a large rural area. Rosenthal said that too often, the rural-urban divide is overlooked in health-care coverage, a problem exacerbated by a lack of local news coverage.
“We want to pay a lot of attention to … what’s happening in rural communities,” he said. “We have a responsibility to try and tell their story as much as we can because they don’t have a lot of other options to tell their story.”
Advice for journalists covering reproductive health
Do your research
“Figure out who the players are on both sides of the issue, from advocacy groups to health-care providers to key lawmakers and lobbying groups. Just reach out to everybody, ask everybody out for coffee, get on the phone. … Find out not just what’s happening right now, but what’s on your radar? What are you worried about? What are you watching? What are you hoping to do next?”Sarah McCammon, NPR
Choose sources wisely
“If you’re talking about claims around abortion or claims around reproductive health or claims around contraception, you need health experts to give you the facts on these medications, procedures, complications. … That information should not be coming from activists on any side.”Rosemary Westwood, WWNO/WRKF
Give yourself grace
“If you’re feeling like this is too heavy, talk to one of your editors or your managers about it, to see if there might be something that can be shifted. Make sure you get your days off when you need them and deserve them, because it’s hard to report on something this big for a long period of time.”Aprile Rickert, WFPL