On Monday, Physicians for Reproductive Health published an open letter to “reporters, journalists, editorial teams, and producers” asking that they “stop giving air-time to anti-abortion activists.” They write:
We know your reporting standards are to cover “both sides” of any debate. Allow us to be clear: Medicine and science are not up for debate. Health care is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of fact. And the fact is, abortion is not in the realm of theory or belief. Abortion belongs in health care, social services, and public health reporting.
With this in mind, we are asking for a commitment from the community of media outlets reporting on abortion to keep in mind the true danger that you present when interviewing anti-abortion extremists. You are giving the opportunity for dangerous lies to spread. You are, by way of asking them questions, legitimizing their answers. You are allowing hateful, dangerous harassers to build a base that encourages protesting at clinics, stalking and harming clinic staff and abortion providers, and online and in-person abuse of people who have abortions and those who support them in getting that care.
I am very supportive of this organization, and very sympathetic to their argument. A number of the signatories of this letter are people and entities I respect deeply, have interviewed myself, and think are doing tremendous, crucial work.
So it may surprise you when I say: They’re wrong on this one.
Whether we like it or not, abortion rights are up for debate; whether we like it or not, the abortion rights side has lost in the Supreme Court, and has lost in a great many states. I wish that medicine and science were not up for debate, but medicine and science are indeed up for debate. (I will also say that neither medicine nor science are static and settled entities where every single thing falls clearly on one or the other side of a true-or-false dichotomy.)
That isn’t to say that every story about abortion needs to quote abortion opponents. There is more than a grain of truth to what they are saying: Abortion is covered differently than other medical procedures. Publications absolutely do reflexively treat abortion like a political question instead of the health care it is. That is a problem, and it reflects the way the anti-abortion movement has worked the refs. Virtually no other health issue (perhaps with the exception, post-Covid, of vaccines) sees the kind of skewed, politicized coverage abortion does.
Journalists should indeed be more thoughtful about how we cover abortion. When we cover abortion as a health care issue—which is what it should be—it typically makes no sense to interview people who oppose abortion rights. Would you interview a rando extremist who is against open-heart surgery in a story about cardiology? If the answer is no—and the answer is probably no—then you don’t need to interview an anti-abortion extremist in a story about a woman who is having an abortion, or a story about innovations in abortion care, or even in a story about the necessity of abortion in comprehensive health care.
We’ve long seen this same debate over how publications cover climate change, and I think we’ve seen a lot of progress. News outlets increasingly skip covering “both sides” of the climate change debate, choosing instead to focus on the real effects and, at this point, virtually scientifically undisputed causes. Climate change has been a model of both journalistic both-sides malpractice and, more recently, a notable correction.
Abortion coverage, which is so often reflexively politicized, should see the same trajectory. Frankly, I think it’s moving in the right direction. In the aftermath of Roe, newspapers, magazines, websites, and TV networks the nation over have published accurate, thoughtful, touching, enraging, and deeply reported pieces on the human cost of outlawing abortion. The coverage has been thorough and it has been sustained. Not every story has been perfect, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised at both the volume of the coverage and its quality. There is room for improvement. But American newsrooms clearly have become much more thoughtful in their abortion coverage, and a great many publications, editors, and writers have risen to this moment.
But media outlets are not perfect, and the concern voiced by the organizations and providers who have signed into this letter are not misplaced. Many pieces that should cover abortion as health care wind up covering abortion as politics. Many reporters reflexively lace their stories with quotes from abortion opponents without correcting factual errors, or where such quotes are totally irrelevant. This is a problem, and I hope the signatories of this letter continue to push back when they see this kind of journalistic malpractice in action.
But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to ask that journalists simply don’t quote abortion opponents, as this letter does. As much as I wish it wasn’t, abortion is a political issue; unlike most medical procedures, it is politically contentious, even as much of the public wants it to be legal. But there are very real forces working to curtail abortion rights and scale back abortion access. There are very real debates about the morality of abortion. And it is bad journalism not to interview and quote those people, abhorrent as I personally find their views. It would be bad journalism, for example, to write a piece about all of the pregnant women who are seeing their health and lives threatened by anti-abortion laws and not give an architect of those laws the chance to reply. It would certainly be more ideologically satisfying to exclude abortion opponents from the conversation, but it wouldn’t be honest—and it wouldn’t meet the ethical obligations of most reputable newspapers.
Journalists should not publish unchallenged lies. Journalists should not publish flatly false claims of abortion opponents. But, in some (many?) contexts, journalists should publish the opinions and comments of anti-abortion activists and politicians—even if those opinions are bad ones.
I find myself increasingly troubled by the entire concept of “de-platforming” and the suggestion that discussion or debate amounts to endorsement or normalization, at least in a journalistic context. The open letters tells journalists, “You are, by way of asking [abortion opponents] questions, legitimizing their answers.” This is absurd. Journalists interview all kinds of people, from dictators and war criminals to accused murderers and random racists in small-town diners. We are not legitimating their views by asking them questions, nor by publishing their answers; we are doing the work of reporting.
That work, of course, requires quite a bit of care; it requires telling the whole story. Journalists are, at their best, truth-tellers, not simple scribes. When it comes to abortion, the truth is that it is a necessary medical procedure that shouldn’t be politicized, but is. Abortion is health care and it shouldn’t be up for debate, but it is up for debate.
The job of the journalist is not to write the world as it should be. The job of the journalist is to write the world as it is.
Opinion writers like me have leeway. But straight news reporters have a series of professional obligations to follow. This letter asks that they violate them. And there are real risks to that, including not doing their job fully, and losing the public trust. Readers need to trust that reporters are telling them the whole story. Yes, “the whole story” varies; sometimes, in abortion-related coverage, the whole story can and should be told without a single quote from an abortion opponent. But sometimes in abortion coverage, the whole story does indeed need to include those who oppose the procedure and have worked—quite successfully—to stigmatize it and limit access to it.
I feel for abortion providers, especially in this moment. They are under siege, legally and culturally. They put themselves at risk of harassment when they speak out—just look at how right-wing media and “pro-life” politicians put a target on the back of one Indiana abortion provider because she ended the pregnancy of a ten-year-old rape victim and told the media about it. But it’s not a quote from an abortion opponent that creates that risk; it’s the existence of a violent and extremely powerful anti-abortion movement in the first place. And journalists don’t do anyone any favors by simply pushing the anti-abortion movement out of the frame.
The job of the journalist is to explain to a reader what is happening in the world; that often requires asking questions of people who are awful and do awful things and have awful ideas. It always requires being curious, certainly about things you don’t understand, but also about things you find repulsive or upsetting. It is not “legitimating” the answer of an abortion opponent to ask them questions. It is, for the journalist, doing the job.