Covering abortion as a health care issue
in all its complexity, politics aside

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Lisa Harris shared this slide during her presentation to illustrate the audience that is most likely to be open to new ideas or thoughts. The audiences on either side of the spectrum are entrenched in their views and unlikely to consider new information that does not support their beliefs. Image courtesy of Lisa Harris

I recently returned from the annual meeting of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) in Baltimore — the first meeting of this professional organization since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs opinion overturned Roe v. Wade. 

One of the sessions I attended was unique in its focus on communication strategies, and many of its takeaways, with some tweaks, could benefit journalists. Specifically, some of the session’s key points can help journalists avoid polarizing language that may undermine the facts we’re providing and the stories we’re telling.

Key takeaways: 

  • Cover abortion as much as possible as a health care issue rather than a political one (though it’s both). 
  • Understand who your audience is, what their values are, and what they need.
  • Lean into nuance and complexity, assuming readers can understand the gray areas of an issue.
  • Reveal in your story, or allow sources to reveal, how it’s possible to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time. Show how an issue is not black or white but, sometimes, black and white.

As you might imagine, a lot of the sessions at the ACOG conference had to do with abortion, but not necessarily in the way you might expect. It was not a series of advocacy sessions on policy or angry rants about what politicians are doing across the country as more and more state legislatures pass abortion restrictions. Rather, nearly every session related to abortion in any way, and even sessions about something else in which the Dobbs decision or abortion came up, focused on care of patients. 

The meeting was focused on doctors doing what doctors do: caring for their patients and learning and reinforcing the best ways of doing that. And that brings me to the session that I found particularly illuminating for journalists: “Depolarizing Abortion Conversations: Evidence-Based Communication Strategies for Physicians.” 

The session was presented by Lisa Harris, M.D., Ph.D, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Michigan whose research ”examines issues at the intersection of clinical obstetrical and gynecological care and law, policy, politics, ethics, history, and sociology,” particularly including abortion. If her name is familiar, you might remember her speaking during the AHCJ 2022 luncheon roundtable in Austin, just days before the Dobbs decision was leaked.

As its title implies, Harris’s presentation focused on communication strategies physicians can and should use to depoliticize abortion and discuss it for what it is — a health care issue. Yet the strategies she shared still offer some insights for journalism. So I’ll cover some of the highlights of her talk. (AHCJ is in the process of planning a webinar with Harris in which she will present some of her research findings and communication strategies in a retooled presentation explicitly for journalists.)

Abortion is usually a “health care” issue for “health” journalists

As health reporters, our reporting on abortion — even when reporting on policy — will likely better inform readers if it focuses on the topic as a care issue. The challenge is getting our audience to read (or listen to or watch) what we produce with the mindset of abortion as a care issue. It may seem like we have no control over that, but as Harris’s presentation showed, there are choices we can make in our language and presentation of information that can, in fact, turn down the volume on the political aspects rather than turning it up. 

“These are strategies that are effective at depolarizing abortion conversations, and that would help connect the dots between abortion and health, which promotes meaningful engagement with audiences,” Harris said. Of course, doctors have a vested interest in depolarizing abortion conversations that journalists do not necessarily share; it’s not our job to depolarize or polarize an issue. It’s our job to report facts and tell stories. But if people read our articles and feel more dug into their position, we may be less effective at communicating facts.

Understanding audience needs

Harris made two important points about audiences that are relevant to journalists. The first was about how to target a message: toward the middle. As with conversations about vaccines, speaking to people who hold extreme views, whether “pro” or “anti,” accomplishes little. Speaking to undecided folks, or those with more malleable views, can make a difference. Although the journalist’s role is not to persuade the audience of any particular position (unless it’s in an op-ed or personal essay), we might inadvertently write our stories in such a way that speaks more to one “side” than another. Holding it in our minds that our primary audience should be the broad middle (in addition to those with views on either extreme) may help avoid inadvertent bias. 

Her second point was to “know your audience and know what matters most to them to deliver your message in a way that resonates with their values.” Again, journalists don’t have a “message” to impart, but we do want to impart the information our audience will find most relevant and important for them to make up their minds about something. Knowing their values can help us decide what facts and other aspects of a story to prioritize in the story.

Embrace complexity and nuance

One of Harris’s other key points was my favorite simply because, when people ask what I do in journalism, I often tell them I “live in the grays.” I find that digging into nuance and complexity can help readers make sense of what are, frankly, complex health and medical issues. Our media environment often encourages the opposite, so I was pleasantly surprised to hear Harris say that her research reveals audiences are actually “craving” stories that go beyond simple or neat narratives.

“Lean into nuance and complexity, including the emotional and ethical complexities of abortion,” Harris said. “This is actually calming to audiences; they crave it.” What she found in her research is that watering down or oversimplifying issues frustrates people. They want to understand the issue, and they don’t want to feel talked down to or like an issue is being glossed over when it’s clear there’s a lot more to it. 

Part of the nuance and complexity involves “holding the tension of opposites,” Harris said. “If we show that we can hold two opposing ideas at the same time, it offers a model for other people to do it, and avoids re-entrenching and polarizing comments.” It’s possible, she said, to acknowledge that abortion involves terminating a life and allowing a patient and a doctor to make what they together feel is the best decision for that patient’s health and wellbeing. 

This goes deeper than a cursory inclusion of each “side’s” perspective. It involves allowing those perspectives to coexist rather than in direct opposition to one another. How we present those perspectives in our stories and frame the larger narrative can affect whether our audience is able to consider that two seemingly opposite things can be true at the same time, and that sometimes that can be okay.

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