Helpful tips for student media outlets that want to cover the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade situation

A draft of a Supreme Court majority opinion regarding the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization leaked late Monday night on the Politico website. The 98-page document, written by Justice Samuel Alito, would reverse the nearly 50-year-old precedent of Roe v. Wade and eliminate the constitutionally protected right to abortions in the United States, if it remains unchanged when the court formally renders its opinion.

I have a hard time imagining that many student media outlets wouldn’t have a vested interest in covering this situation as it unfolds. With that in mind, this post does not aim to direct the opinion of those students, nor to take a stand on the issue itself. The point of this post is to provide student journalists with some help in navigating some truly risky waters when choosing what, when and how to present information to their readers on this topic.

First, let’s start off with a few key things you need to be aware of before you even start thinking about publishing something here:

  1. You will not change most readers’ minds about anything on this topic. Most of what people think and believe about this issue will have been codified in their minds, hearts and souls long before you showed up. A good friend, who was perhaps prescient, posted this explanation from The Oatmeal of why it’s hard to change minds or get people to listen on certain issues the other day and it bears a look. Trying to move the needle on this issue among readers is going to be as successful as bailing out a sinking boat with a pasta strainer.
  2. There aren’t two sides to this. There are many facets. Certain topics tend to bring out the extremes when it comes to public opinion. Yes, there are probably people out there who believe that life begins when a man unhooks a woman’s bra. Conversely, there are probably people out there who believe there should be free abortion punch cards available at Starbucks. Those people do not represent the majority of people who have an interest in this issue. If you want to dig into this issue, you need to look beyond the loudest voices screaming threadbare talking points. It’ll take work.
  3. This is not law yet. This is a leaked first draft of a document that the public wasn’t supposed to see, at least not based on tradition and protocol. The information, including how many justices voted to make this a majority opinion, who they are, how tied to this they are, how much they support the language and more, is not codified through official channels or publicly declared by the court itself. A lot can happen in multiple aspects of this case, including what the final opinion looks like, if Congress will make moves to solidify abortion rights and other things nobody has thought about yet. When covering this issue, it’s crucial to keep that in mind when making declarative statements, asking questions of sources and writing content (particularly headlines where space limits can lead to fact errors).
  4. You are running out of semester. TV shows can be great when they use the “cliffhanger” approach at the end of a season. News doesn’t benefit from that kind of situation, so be aware of how much time you have left to cover this topic, how many issues you have yet to publish and how those things should factor into your approach here. A half-baked “get-er-done” story that runs in your last issue can likely lead to more harm than good when you lack the ability to correct any errors, follow up on any developments or otherwise continue telling the story. You might have one shot at this, so make sure it does what it needs to do.

With those things in mind, here are some tips and hints on how to approach this topic:

KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE: If it sounds like I harp on this every time I write something, it’s only because that’s exactly what I’m doing. This isn’t the time or the issue where you should assume everyone is “exactly like me” or guess about how much of your readership feels a certain way about the topic. Even within the newsroom itself, people probably hold differing views on if this is the best thing or the worst thing ever to happen in this country. It’s also likely that many of those views will come as a surprise to folks once they are vocalized.

One key thing to do is to really assess who reads your paper and what matters most to them. In a case like this, it’s a little too late to do a readers survey, but you can look for some breadcrumbs that might be out there for the finding. Some private, religious schools might clearly lean more pro-life, but look around for pockets of dissent. Some liberal, public schools might lean more pro-choice, but look around for pockets of dissent.

Look for groups on campus that have voiced their opinions on topics before and see how large, engaged, involved and representative they are of the larger whole. Look for previous coverage in your publication of this issue to see who is out there and what they had to say. Talk to people in the newsroom and the classroom about this with the idea of finding out not just what they think, but also what their roommates, friends, teammates and peers think.

Get a handle on what kind of room you will be playing to when you publish your work.

RESEARCH LIKE HELL: You are looking at the possible reversal of a court decision that likely is older than some of your professors. In the nearly five decades since the court handed down its ruling in this case, a lot of stuff has happened. Your going to want to be the smartest person in the room on this topic before you start interviewing people and writing stories.

Learn as much as you can about the original case, the ruling and what changed because of it. Look at the other challenges to it over the years, including the Planned Parenthood v. Casey case of 1992, to see what has transpired over the past 50 years or so. Look into the history of abortions within the United States to figure out what happened during times when the procedure was legal and illegal. You’ll likely need to spend some serious time digging into this, but the last thing you want to do interview someone without having a full view of the facts. This is one topic in which the stakes are too high to risk getting snowed by a source with a bias.

Here are some tips and hints for potential stories:

LOCAL IMPACT: The court ruling, if it becomes final in its current form, would essentially kick the decision of whether abortions should be legal back to the states. States have had widely varying laws regarding this procedure, as you can see from the series of maps from the Washington Post. Figuring out what will happen to your readers will matter a great deal in how you approach this topic. Some states have laws that go into effect the minute the Court reverses Roe. Others have laws that remain on the books from decades ago that simply stop getting overridden by the Feds. Others are looking for laws that will remove or improve access to abortions once all of this gets sorted out.

Everyone else will be talking at the federal/macro level on this. You should explain it at the local/micro level. This could entail everything from what your student health center is allowed to provide to if any private businesses in the area provide this service and will no longer be allowed to do so.

Your job is not to tell people the sky is falling or the world is finally going to be right. Your job is to factually outline what it is that has happened, will happen and could happen if this draft becomes final.

UNPACKING “UNPRECEDENTED” AGAIN: If COVID taught me anything, it was to hate the word “unprecedented.” However, this situation has rolled out more cases in which that word will likely apply. Start looking at them:

  • Talk to local legal scholars about the leak. Folks are initially saying this “has never happened in modern history.” That’s a dodge within a couch of an argument, given “modern history” could be anywhere from post-Civil War era to since last Tuesday. Find out from people who study this stuff how rare this actually is, what the value/problem with such a leak can be and the likely impact the leak will have on the final draft.
  • Talk to local experts in history and law regarding an overturn of this nature. How often does the court fail to apply precedent in a situation like this? What issues have seen this kind of shift before? What results usually occur in a situation when the Court zigs like this, both in terms of the decision at hand as well as other cases that could follow?
  • Talk to local political experts to see what kinds of steps the executive and/or legislative branches might take in response to this judicial decision. There is already a rumbling about getting rid of the filibuster and trying to crank through something in the House and Senate that would counterbalance the court decision. Pro-choice advocates have noted President Joe Biden’s relative silence on the issue, as well as his history voting on the topic. Will he look to define his presidency with a move on this topic? I don’t know, but I’d surely ask someone smarter than me about it.

HISTORY TRIP: Generations of people have existed in a world in which this topic was hotly debated, but also clearly codified into law. Generations of people also lived through a time before Roe v. Wade, so it would be valuable to find out what things were like back then.

Most of what I have heard falls into oft-repeated phrases like “back-alley procedures,” “under-cover-of-night travel,” “unscrupulous and dangerous” and more. What that actually means in terms of true history is beyond me in many cases, so finding people who can better provide context, truth and history will be helpful. (The 19th did a piece on this topic not too long ago that followed women’s memories through their experiences in the pre-Roe era, if you are interested.) Professors at your school who study history, women’s studies and other scholastic areas that traverse this topic could be helpful, as could sources who were involved in either side of the struggle back then.

It would also be interesting to look at both current and historical data regarding the number of overall procedures that occurred in your coverage area, if that is available. The thing most people forget in talking about overturning Roe v. Wade is that it won’t eliminate abortions. It will just make them illegal and harder to come by. The numbers might tell a story both “back when” and “right now.”

PERSONAL STORIES: This is one of those that really has a strong risk/reward element to it. It is highly probable that you have students at your school who, in some way, connect strongly to this topic. How they connect, what they are willing to share and to what degree the reporter can work with these sources will determine the overall value of something like this. If you are unsure as to how to proceed with this, I strongly recommend you talk to your adviser, smart professors who have experience in the field and other journalism folk who can help guide you.

FINAL NOTE: The one last important thing to keep in mind on something like this is that the duty to report is not the same as the duty to publish. You might do an inordinate amount of work, only to find a weak or wobbly story that might not do the job you had hoped it would. There is no rule in journalism that dictates you publish it and take your chances. In many cases, caution is the better part of valor. This is probably one of those cases if you feel the story isn’t where it needs to be.

That said, don’t let fear of public reaction dissuade you from running a quality story. This is one of those topics where you will inevitably upset someone, so disabuse yourself of the notion that a well-reported, well-researched, factually based story will garner universal applause. If it’s good, run it.

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