The Media Today

Q&A: Rewire News Group’s editors on abortion coverage, Supreme Court reporters, and TikTok

February 8, 2023

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, in June, twenty-four states have banned or have tried to ban abortion. State legislatures and conservative organizations have pushed to curb other reproductive rights. In a federal court in Texas, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative advocacy group behind Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe, is now challenging the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, an abortion pill that has been administered to patients for twenty years.

In CJR’s recent Abortion issue, Betsy Morais, our managing editor, noted that “there has never been consensus in the press about how to cover abortion.” That has left many journalists scrambling to catch up, and keep up, with the ongoing fallout of Dobbs. Some journalists are tapping the expertise of Rewire News Group, a nonprofit news organization dedicated to reproductive health and justice, to help them navigate the reproductive-rights beat. Reporters in Texas, for instance, recently called on Jessica Mason Pieklo—Rewire News Group’s executive editor, and an attorney—for guidance in deciphering the state’s “bounty hunter” law, which targets abortion seekers and providers.

Last week, I met with Pieklo and Galina Espinoza, Rewire News Group’s president and editor in chief. The publication had just celebrated its tenth year. “We do this work because we want to have an impact,” Espinoza told me. “We want to inspire folks to act on the information they’re getting.”

Pieklo and Espinoza discussed how the press can improve its abortion coverage—based on what Rewire has learned from its decade of experience at the federal, state, and individual levels—and how they think the media should be prepared for the next round of Supreme Court decisions. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ER: Jess, you predicted the overturn of Roe
while talking to CJR’s editor, Kyle Pope, on an episode of our podcast The Kicker back in May 2021. Do you feel now, looking back, that members of the news media in general were prepared for this outcome?

JMP: No, they weren’t. We’ve seen the Supreme Court for the first time in history stop recognizing a right that it recognized before. Even in the aftermath of Dobbs, I feel like we’re not having robust enough conversations. What does it mean for us—for the first time in our nation’s history—to stop having a right? This is something that feels really urgent because it is. This is the first domino. If the court can stop recognizing one right, it can stop recognizing two rights, it can stop recognizing three rights, it can stop recognizing ten rights if it wants to. How do we check that?

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I like your use of the word “domino,” because Dobbs is often framed as this big event when, really, it was one blow on a yearslong continuum of decline in reproductive rights. We are stubbornly fixated on the policy side of things. Is that how you see it?

JMP: There was a tendency to cover the abortion issue as a political issue, as devoid of actual real-world consequences in health spaces. For example, the lack of patients and providers being quoted in stories [despite] journalists’ consistently talking to lawmakers. It’s important to know the antiabortion restrictions that are being proposed—who’s proposing them, what they’re doing—but there was a long media conversation around the coordinated campaign to roll back abortion rights that missed the boat because it did not talk to patients. It did not talk to providers. It focused on the issue as a battle in statehouses, which it was—but, at the same time, with real-world consequences.

GE: In 2020, NARAL Pro-Choice America commissioned a research group to analyze how abortion is written about in digital, television, and print media. They found that only 14 percent of stories quoted a doctor. A patient was quoted in fewer than 10 percent of stories. Meanwhile, 80 percent of the reporters covering abortion were either political reporters, legal reporters, or general-assignment reporters—not healthcare reporters, not even women’s-issues reporters. So, when you think about how reporters start their coverage, it’s What is the lens that they are looking through? If you’re starting from a political lens and you’re reaching out to your contacts who are politicians, you’re not thinking about the patients; you’re not thinking about the doctors. Now think about any other procedure or medical situation that has to take place in a clinic or through a doctor’s prescription. It’s almost like journalism malpractice not to talk to a doctor or to not talk to a patient. I don’t think there is literally any other medical coverage that would pass muster with an editor. You would get sent back, like, Where’s the patient? Where’s the doctor? That doesn’t happen with abortion. The framing is so completely off that it leads to this perpetuation of an idea that abortion is this polarizing, political issue.

Do you think the Dobbs decision has been a wake-up call to journalists to shift their approach?

JMP: I think that the leaked opinion in May did journalism a favor in terms of the shortcomings in framing stories. There was a persistent belief before Dobbs that the Supreme Court is supposed to be a nonpolitical actor. Those of us who cover the court have been suspicious of that for some time. I think the leaked opinion created an opportunity for journalists to see behind the curtain, to see that the court is, as the third branch of government, a political actor. Journalists have frequently fallen into an objectivity when covering the courts. And it makes sense. We want to believe that our institutions are solid.

We have high hopes.

JMP: We do. There is an element to Supreme Court coverage that can fall into palace intrigue. We don’t know what goes on behind the robes. Everything’s very secret. I’m hopeful that this is a moment in the media where we can have a reckoning about how some of our institutions behave, because it will create better journalism.

Jess, in a recent piece that you wrote marking what would have been the fiftieth anniversary of Roe, you foreshadowed the court overturning other landmark cases like Obergefell v. Hodges, the case that extended the right to marry to same-sex couples. How do you balance armchair speculation with warning people, so that they aren’t caught off guard by the court again?

JMP: That’s not my opinion; that was Justice Alito and Justice Thomas letting us know, in the Dobbs opinion, what they would like to see next. Alito does this all the time, and we can look to the attacks on the legality of public- and private-sector unions as a playbook for this. In opinion after opinion after opinion, he has breadcrumbed what conservative advocacy groups should do next. And guess what? They did it. What didn’t happen was a lot of legal journalists saying, Oh, hey, isn’t this interesting—that every time Sam Alito says, “I’d like the next case to look like this,” the next case looks like exactly what he would like.

So you feel doubtful that most journalists have picked up on what you see to be clear clues from the court as to what’s to come?

JMP: I think that they haven’t learned. There is still a reluctance to take the justices at their word.

GE: Or they’re off chasing the next story, because, again, these are not folks who are assigned to the abortion beat. These are folks who are much more broadly examining and chasing whatever is coming next. They’re not connecting the dots, and they’re not using these examples that we have seen play out over and over again. The National Right to Life Committee has an annual meeting; every time it meets, it drafts model legislation that it hopes to see statehouses pick up and introduce. Jess and our team are there looking at, What are the pieces of model legislation? And that’s how we know what the next battlegrounds are going to be.

Talking about state legislatures, in our Abortion issue, Amy Littlefield wrote that in the immediate aftermath of Dobbs, we suddenly had fifty breaking news stories—one in each state. How has Rewire’s coverage adapted to that reality?

GE: It really hasn’t changed that much. The mistake that a lot of journalists made is that they thought Roe was a constitutional right, that abortion was taken care of. Sure, in theory, abortion was legal. But, state by state, it was a patchwork system of where abortion was actually legal and accessible. That’s always been the lens that we have applied. State coverage has been core to what we’ve been doing: identifying trends, identifying places where they’ve been chipping away at access and targeting certain groups of people to not be able to have access and also—continuously, almost nonstop—introducing pieces of legislation that they knew were unconstitutional but that they wanted to use as test cases in front of the Supreme Court. What we’re seeing today is perhaps more urgent than what was happening before. But it’s the same story.

I want to ask about digital surveillance, because that’s obviously terrifying. Mary Retta touched on this in the Abortion issue. How do you think about covering that, as it becomes more real and more common?

JMP: We actually have some models for some of what is coming and what is hitting the abortion rights and access landscape, in terms of reporting these stories out. We’ve learned a lot from the war on drugs. What we’re seeing here is the war on drugs coming to the war on bodies, on our pregnancies, because of that level of surveillance. When you outlaw abortion, you create a legal presumption that a positive pregnancy test requires delivering a healthy baby to the state. When you do not deliver a healthy baby to the state, you have created probable cause for a crime, and so surveillance of people who can become pregnant is increasing now. That will change behaviors. People are starting to delete their period apps. We’re seeing people start not to go to prenatal appointments. What I hope can happen in media spaces is an understanding that abortion is a health issue and that, because we are criminalizing access to healthcare, we are creating a new class of suspected criminals. There is a crime beat to covering pregnancy now.

For our Abortion issue, I interviewed an obstetrician-gynecologist who reaches people who could become pregnant, and debunks myths around abortion, on TikTok. I’m curious, since a lot of young people have migrated to TikTok, would Rewire ever adopt a similar approach?

GE: We’re actually planning to launch on TikTok; that’s a huge priority for us. When we started ten years ago as an independent media organization, Twitter was where journalists went. What we have realized from our own audience data is that folks are migrating to new platforms and they are increasingly consuming news on these new platforms. You’ve got twenty- to twenty-five-year-olds looking for that kind of information on TikTok. The social media landscape is fracturing, but that almost doesn’t matter for us because it’s just about making sure that we are where our audience is, and the majority of them are between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four. We know we need to be following that. We take our lead from the audience. Where they go, we’re going to follow.

Other notable stories:

  • For Popular Information, Judd Legum, Rebecca Crosby, and Tesnim Zekeria took aim at credulous coverage of a recent memo signaling a break between a Koch-backed political group and maga Republicans. Charles “Koch has repeatedly announced he was reorienting his political strategy away from far-right Republicans, including Trump—with no discernible change in his actual political activity,” they write. “After each media-assisted rebrand, Koch quietly resumed business as usual. The reality is that few individuals have spent more money to legitimize Trump and his allies than Koch.”
  • CNBC’s Alex Sherman and Lillian Rizzo asked media bigwigs—including Barry Diller, Bela Bajaria, and Jeff Zucker—for their predictions as to how the world of TV will look three years from now, as the industry transitions toward a streaming-centric future. Legacy TV “will continue to exist,” Zucker, who was ousted from CNN a year ago, said. “Obviously it will have fewer subs than it does today. News and sports will keep it alive.” Bajaria, the chief content officer at Netflix, had a similar take.
  • For CJR and the Tow Center, Joel Simon, the former executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues that the global conversation around press freedom should move beyond its grounding in a “human rights framework,” focused on the individual right to free expression, to also incorporate “the notion of public interest,” focused on the “collective social benefit” of independent journalism. You can read his report here.
  • Amira Bouraoui, a journalist and activist in Algeria, arrived in France after officials from the latter country (of which Bouraoui is a dual national) negotiated her departure from Tunisia, which had threatened to send Bouraoui back to Algeria. Bouraoui, who has worked for the broadcaster Radio M, fled Algeria following a crackdown on that outlet and press freedom more broadly, as Mercy Tonnia Orengo recently chronicled for CJR.
  • And, ahead of President Biden’s State of the Union address last night, Jack Shafer, a media writer at Politico, argued that the tradition should be scrapped. “The whole ceremony could be replaced by a simple email from the prez to members of Congress,” Shafer wrote. “No need to preempt regular broadcasts. No need to keep newscasters like Jake Tapper and Lester Holt and Norah O’Donnell up past their bedtimes.”

ICYMI: Overclassification, the Finnish way

Emily Russell is a CJR fellow.