By Ashley Balcerzak
When writing about abortion or reproductive rights, it can be difficult to move past the debate itself. Many stories lean on a formula of pro-life versus pro-choice activists and ultimately land on a somewhat expected left-leaning takeaway.
At this year’s IRE Conference panel “How to investigate the war on women’s health,” Hannah Levintova and Marianne Szegedy-Maszak with Mother Jones, Nina Martin of ProPublica, and The Guardian’s Molly Redden discussed tips and tricks for going beyond the predictable culture-wars piece.
Focus on a different aspect of women’s health, Redden said, such as the economic factors involved. Think of the story as an investigation into a heavily regulated industry and ask the traditional questions: Who is pushing action on each side? Where did they come from? How truthful are their messages?
Sourcing is crucial. Go to the outspoken actors, but also consult internal documents, lawsuits, and state data. Keep in touch with whoever runs the abortion fund in your state, which Redden said is the most overlooked resource on this beat.
Delve into amicus briefs (legal documents filed by non-litigants), cert petitions (appeals to the Supreme Court), and 990s. Look at who is funding law firms involved in cases on the topic. Follow the citations in medical and law journals, Martin added.
You’ll often run into issues of anonymity. It will sometimes feel impossible to find the name of a victim, or they won’t want to talk once you find them. Go to congressional testimony, Levintova said, and find women in the transcripts who have already decided to speak publicly.
Know your local community really well: Who runs the local hospital? Pay attention to the comings and goings of their CEOs. What are the leaders’ political affiliations?
Martin said not to wait until the end of your reporting to contact the other side. They’ll often have much more for you to investigate, fact check and consider.
Acknowledge any inherent bias in your word choices, Redden said. The words “access to abortion” favor pro-choice readers, so being as neutral as possible will help both sides trust you.
Another way to avoid the perceived bias trap? Go beyond abortion. There are so many stories that impact women’s health that are overlooked because they are not as flashy or as easy as abortion pieces.
Ashley Balcerzak is a fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, where she covers state and local politics from a national level. She is pursuing her master's degree in journalism and public affairs at American University, and received her undergraduate degree from Northwestern University. Ashley's work can be found in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Slate, TIME, Men’s Health and The Huffington Post.