Missouri media provide a model for local outlets when covering breaking abortion-related news

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

On May 28, the last remaining abortion clinic in Missouri announced that it would be forced to stop providing abortion services within the week, after the Department of Health and Senior Services refused to renew the clinic’s license. Following the announcement, coverage from many local media outlets accurately and effectively reported on the breaking news. 

Though a judge issued a temporary restraining order that allows the clinic to continue providing abortion care until at least June 21 -- when the state would have to “decide whether to renew Planned Parenthood's annual license” -- the status of abortion access in Missouri is still uncertain. Putting aside the increasing likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn or further weaken Roe v. Wade, abortion rights are already under attack at the state level, and newsrooms must be prepared to provide accurate coverage of the stakes and impacts.

Coverage from local Missouri media could serve as a model for other local media as these outlets cover continuing attacks on abortion rights. 

1) Talk to abortion providers or people who have had abortions about their experiences and needs

Too often, reporting about abortion or reproductive rights ignores or downplays the voices of those most central to the discussion: providers and patients. In contrast, while reporting on the imminent threat that Missouri’s last clinic providing abortion care may lose its license, Missouri media made an effort to talk to abortion providers and the patients who had relied on the clinic’s abortion services. For example, NBC affiliate KNDU aired a segment featuring a national NBC journalist talking to Jennifer Box, a local Missouri woman who had gotten an abortion at the clinic:

ANN THOMPSON (NBC CORRESPONDENT): Two years ago, Jenny Box says, this is where she went to have an abortion.

JENNIFER BOX: I know that we made the best choice for her.

THOMPSON: But with no clinic and a new law the governor signed Friday banning abortions after eight weeks, she and her husband would no longer have that option. They ended her pregnancy at 15 weeks after learning their daughter had a genetic disorder and would die soon after birth. Now they are expecting another child.

BOX: I believe my greatest act of love as her mother was to suffer myself instead.

When asked by CBS affiliate KMOV about the clinic’s announcement, Box explained, “As someone who has lived through an abortion and has had Planned Parenthood doctors provide those services for her, it’s terrifying.”

Missouri CBS affiliate KOLR 10 also aired a segment featuring an interview between a CBS national correspondent and Box:  

JENNIFER BOX: We learned that the fetus had a fetal anomaly and would be born into a life of agony and so in March of that year, we decided to terminate the pregnancy.

KATE SMITH (CBS CORRESPONDENT): And how far along were you at that point?

BOX: I was 15 weeks when I had the termination.

SMITH: That’s when she was introduced to Missouri’s abortion regulations.

BOX: My husband and I refer to that as the book of shame.

SMITH: The Missouri informed consent booklet is given to each woman at an abortion clinic before her mandatory 72-hour waiting period beings.

BOX: You know, it’s a book to intimidate you, and to share their personal beliefs about gestation, not to give you medically accurate information when making a decision about having an abortion.

Several local outlets also spoke to abortion provider Dr. Colleen McNicholas. On Fox affiliate KTVI, McNicholas highlighted the process for maintaining a clinic license and explained how anti-abortion activists were weaponizing the process to prevent patients from accessing abortion care:

COLLEEN MCNICHOLAS: We have found from year to year that a practice that we were using in our delivery of care all of a sudden was no longer acceptable. And so obviously, by continuing to move the goalposts, by continuing to change the way they’re interpreting their own rules, it makes it impossible for us to be able to comply, because we’re just guessing on what they think.

Many outlets provided a nuanced depiction of the impacts on the community should the clinic lose its license to perform abortions. Even so, outlets should be cautious about including comments from anti-abortion protesters without context -- particularly when these comments are juxtaposed with the lived experience of those who would be most impacted by a lack of access to abortion care. 

2) Report accurately on the current state of abortion access -- including the impacts of losing access to this care

After Planned Parenthood announced that its Missouri clinic may be forced to stop providing abortions, a number of national media outlets mistakenly reported that the clinic would be closing entirely. While some local Missouri stations also made this mistake, others were careful to explicitly note that the clinic would remain open and able to provide other services. In addition, a few Missouri outlets highlighted the impact on the state should the clinic lose the ability to provide abortion care. For example, KCTV 5 used a map to illustrate the geographical inaccessibility of abortion in Missouri. By contextualizing the state of abortion access in Missouri -- both in the status quo and beyond -- outlets ensured audiences understood the impact of the clinic losing its license to provide abortions. 

3) Avoid broadcasting anti-choice talking points

Missouri media largely did a good job reporting the facts of licensing fight without repeating anti-choice talking points or downplaying the impact that losing abortion access would have. In but one example of this misstep, NBC affiliate KOMU implied that losing abortion access would be inconsequential, with the correspondent saying that if the clinic couldn’t provide care, “people can still travel to neighboring Planned Parenthoods in Kansas and Illinois.” Suggesting that people travel out of state to access abortion care is a longstanding right-wing media talking point that ignores the numerous economic and logistical barriers making such a journey impossible for many. Most Missouri media made sure to highlight that such a situation would be unprecedented for any state since the passage of Roe v. Wade and would drastically change the accessibility of care in Missouri.

Missouri may soon be without abortion care, and other states are likely to follow. In reporting on these issues, it is imperative that outlets include voices of people most knowledgeable about and impacted by the loss of abortion care: patients who have the procedure and the providers who perform them. Local and national media could learn from Missouri media’s coverage when reporting on the status of abortion care in a community.