united states project

Detroit News Offers Smart Take on Family Planning Feud

But reporters should have talked to, not just about, women
April 4, 2012

MICHIGAN—The latest USA Today/Gallup poll of presidential swing states, released over the weekend, shows President Obama with his first lead in key battlegrounds—a shift fueled by a large rise in female supporters. With Michigan one of the twelve states included in the poll, and women’s health a hot political topic nationally and across this state, The Detroit News covered the survey with a smart package that aimed to localize the national conversation. (The Detroit Free Press, meanwhile, ran a USA Today overview and followed up with another USA Today piece focused on the comparison between the leading Republican candidates.)

Reporter Christine Tierney covered the basics of the poll’s findings for the News, citing Republican, Democratic, and independent pollsters in a piece that explains that Obama’s 18-point lead over Mitt Romney among women exceeds the usual 10-point gender gap between Democrats and Republicans, while cautiously noting that it’s a long seven months until election day. But what makes the package stand out is Marisa Schultz’s take on the current political battles in Michigan over abortion and family planning.

Schultz leads with this week’s opening of the first Planned Parenthood clinic in Oakland County, outside Detroit, which she puts in context of “about 30 bills” targeting reproductive health that are now before the state legislature (with two-thirds of its members opposing abortion). The piece includes plenty of interviews with lawmakers and advocates on both sides of the fight, and it explains well how a period of steady conservative gains set the table for the legislature to prioritize laws that restrict abortion and family planning. From the article:

“We do have a window of opportunity and we need to utilize it,” said state Rep. Thomas Hooker, R-Byron Township, who is pushing legislation to defund Planned Parenthood.

Schultz also weaves in some key national context, noting that “the issue of abortion and women’s health has been the source of heated rhetoric on the GOP presidential campaign trail with pledges by candidates to defund Planned Parenthood” and that “for his part, Obama released a two-minute video this week praising Planned Parenthood and decrying politicians who want to get rid of its funding.” (Tierney skimmed over this context in her piece, noting that Obama’s lead among women has, emphasis mine, “re-emerged since a discussion broke out in January about contraceptives, abortion and insurance.”)

Despite its virtues, there are ways the News’s package could have been better. One quibble: Schultz’s article indicates that for anti-abortion lawmakers, already “there have been some gains. Gov. Rick Snyder signed into law a late-term abortion ban last year.” But Schultz neglects to mention that a federal ban on the procedure has been in place for several years, making the Michigan law redundant. Its passage last fall was, at most, intended to ensure the procedure wouldn’t be permitted in Michigan in the event that the federal ban is ever changed. A more cynical interpretation is that the ban was pure pandering ahead of a key election year. The ban may have amounted to a symbolic victory—it’s true that previous versions of the measure had failed for years under a Democratic governor’s vetoes—but the fact is that the state ban doesn’t have any particular impact on Michigan citizens.

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A bigger complaint is what’s missing from the piece: the voices of doctors, nurses, and patients, the people most palpably impacted by the policies debated by politicians and advocates. This is a significant, if not necessarily atypical, hole in an article on the political reverberation of reproductive health policies. With Schultz’s article pinned to the opening of a new Planned Parenthood clinic in a county that has its own Detroit News bureau, it seems like an obvious step to talk to the people who will be working there and potentially using its services—or, for that matter, the clinic’s new neighbors. But in the entire News package, there are two women quoted: Amanda Henneberg, a Romney campaign spokeswoman, and Sarah Scranton, the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan executive director. The absence of the people being talked about—the unaffiliated women who, as Tierney notes, are hardly a unanimous voting bloc—feels glaring.

The Texas Tribune offers an alternative model for reporting on the politics of reproductive health policies. This piece, printed in The New York Times, opens and closes with the stories of women who are impacted by clinics in Texas that are closing after the state legislature eliminated funds for women’s health care as a way to cut off support to Planned Parenthood. While the politics of the situation need ample space for reporters Pam Belluck and Emily Ramshaw to explain, they make sure to keep the citizens and voters—who are impacted—at the center of the story. That sort of approach would have made the News’s smart package even stronger.

Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.