“Like all healthcare stories, it intersects with other corners of society,” says Heckman, an assistant professor who researches journalism from a feminist point of view. “It’s a policy story. It’s a political story. It’s a legal story. There’s probably going to be a little bit of a whodunit story in terms of where this leaked document came from.
“But at its root, it is a healthcare story.”
As such, says Heckman, the story should focus on the effects that will be borne by women and other people who need reproductive healthcare.
Asked if she believes the Supreme Court ruling will lead to increased coverage of the healthcare perspective, Heckman is noncommittal.
“It depends on who’s making the decisions in the newsrooms,” she says. “Because there has been a long history of women consuming and demanding certain types of news that have not been valued by the people running the news organizations.
“The male gaze is not the default human experience. That doesn’t mean it’s not important. But it is not the only thing that matters.”
Heckman spoke with News@Northeastern about the way abortion rights have been covered, the need for women in newsrooms, and future coverage in light of the imminent ruling. Her comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
How have you viewed news coverage of abortion over the years?
It’s a healthcare story that is deeply rooted in the many structural power imbalances in our society, particularly as they relate to gender, race, and class. And too often the way that major traditional news organizations have framed stories around abortion has been “us versus them.” It’s been policy or horse-race oriented—like, what is this going to mean for the next election cycle?
And that’s a super valid question. There are primaries going on in multiple states right now. They vote pretty soon. So it is valid to ask what a major news story like this might do for voter turnout.
But at its heart, this is a story about whether or not people with uteruses can access the type of healthcare that they may need, in some cases at some of the darkest and most challenging moments in their life.
Not having access to that healthcare has ripple effects, not just for the people giving birth but for their partners, their families, their communities, their employers. And so it’s really important to make sure that news organizations are looking at it through that lens.
Have news organizations succeeded in focusing on the healthcare aspects?
There have been some great examples particularly in recent years of individual journalists and specific news organizations trying to do a very comprehensive job of covering stories around access to abortion and reproductive care as a healthcare issue, as opposed to just a political horse-race issue. For instance, there’s a wonderful newsletter that looks at these national, complicated, emotional, political issues through a very local lens in rural Alabama.
That there are news organizations creating space for that kind of coverage is a really good thing. And it points to the importance of newsroom leaders valuing gender-conscious journalism in the same way that they would value journalists who are really smart about the tax code, or redistricting, or other complex and important stories.
There has been a long history of not assigning as much institutional and financial value to journalists who are savvy about issues that have disproportionately impacted women and other marginalized communities. Historically, it has not been great. But there are a lot of bright spots. I’ll be watching in the coming weeks and months to see how this increased awareness of gender-related issues plays out in news coverage. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, and then the 2017 resurgence of the #MeToo movement, we saw a number of news organizations take issues that have disproportionately impacted women more seriously. So it will be interesting to see how those things play out.
How important is it to hire women in newsrooms and empower them to report issues that might not be prioritized by men?
There are a couple of interesting studies that explore the idea of critical mass, where if you have a critical mass of women in a news organization, they start to have enough power and a high enough profile to change news production norms and the way that an organization covers news.
In some newsrooms, I suspect we may be at that point. I hope that newsroom leaders are smart enough to deploy their resources well and empower journalists of all genders to cover the future of reproductive healthcare in a smart, gender-conscious way.
What will you be looking for in editorial pages across the U.S.?
A news organization is a professional institution. Like all professional institutions, it has a culture, and that culture can reflect certain gendered norms. And major news organizations, particularly major metropolitan newspapers—even the ones that are viewed as more liberal or progressive—operate on the assumption that the default human experience is that of a white, straight, upper-middle-class man. And that is often reflected in their staffing decisions—who gets paid, who gets promoted, what stories get prepped for awards.
How different papers come down editorially, and how they choose to make those arguments, will be really interesting.
Are you optimistic about the way journalism will respond?
Any decision that limits access to reproductive healthcare is not a good thing. It will undoubtedly impact vulnerable communities first.
But if this is the path we have to walk, then I think that there will be opportunities for news organizations to engage in civics education, in education about reproductive healthcare, about the caregiving crisis, about all of these issues that historically have disproportionately impacted women and have been omitted or marginalized in mainstream news narratives.
If we have to walk this road, I would hope that news organizations seize the opportunity to cover these issues seriously and explore the full complexity of what’s really at stake.