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What I learned from reporting on abortion and women’s health in Texas

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

What I learned from reporting on abortion and women’s health in Texas

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I couldn’t hear the click of my fingers pounding away at my keyboard to tweet, “[Department of Public Safety] has begun pulling people out of the gallery.”

After derailing an 11-hour-plus filibuster by Democratic State Senator Wendy Davis, Senate Republicans were attempting to pass strict abortion regulations in the final moments of the June 2013 special legislative session. But the chanting of reproductive rights advocates from the balcony of Texas Senate chamber drowned out their efforts. Republican senators failed to pass the bill by mere seconds. “It’s officially over, [Senate Bill] 5 did not receive Senate approval,” I tweeted at 12:01 a.m.

Texas lawmakers handily passed the strict abortion regulations in a subsequent special session, but the drama of that night had caught the nation’s attention. All eyes were on Texas and how these new restrictions would impact women across the state. For those of us in Texas, the debate on women’s health in the state had been approaching the boiling point for years. And the larger question was whether poor women would have access to contraception, Pap smears and breast exams — not just abortion procedures.

Over the past decade, Texas’ Republican lawmakers, who consistently oppose abortion, passed a series of additional regulations. In 2011, a Tea Party-led Republican majority made a concerted effort to stop Planned Parenthood clinics from receiving any state funds. Although the Planned Parenthood clinics that received state funds did not perform abortions, the legislature cut the budget for family planning services by two-thirds, directed most of the remaining $109 million away from family planning clinics, and ousted “abortion-affiliated” providers, such as Planned Parenthood, from the Medicaid Women’s Health Program. Those decisions decimated the state’s network of family planning providers — 76 clinics closed, and the Texas Health and Human Services Commission estimated 24,000 additional babies would be born into the state’s Medicaid program as a result.

In an effort to rebuild access to women’s health services, Texas Republican lawmakers increased spending on women’s health to $214 million in the 2014-15 budget from $109 million in 2012-13. The legislature allotted an additional $100 million to expand a primary care program and serve an additional 170,000 women annually, and replaced $35 million in lost federal financing with state revenue to continue the Texas Women’s Health Program without Planned Parenthood’s participation. Then, in a special session called by Gov. Rick Perry, they passed strict abortion regulations. As a direct result, the number of abortion facilities in the state was reduced to eight by September 2014 from 40 in August 2013.

The Texas Tribune’s Politics of Prevention series chronicled the implementation of these women’s health programs and the abortion regulations, and examined the impact of the changes on women across the state. By analyzing safety inspection records, we found little evidence to suggest that existing abortion facilities were unsafe before the state passed the new regulations. By looking at Texas Women’s Health Program claims data, we found that fewer services were being provided to women by the state’s new program than the Medicaid Women’s Health Program that had allowed Planned Parenthood clinics to participate. And by analyzing the locations of providers participating in an array of women’s health programs, we identified areas of the state with little or no access to certain programs. Meanwhile, we covered the legal developments and clinic closures, as reproductive rights advocates took their battle over the strict new abortion policies to court.

Here’s are some lessons I learned in the process. While every project is unique, I hope these tips resonate with reporters tackling other issues.

1) Make a game plan. You’ll probably always have eight balls in the air as a reporter, so keep track of which ones will come back around quickly, and which ones you can throw higher and wait longer to catch. For example, I wrote breaking news stories on the court battle over the abortion regulations, which required focused attention for a short period of time, while my balancing the longer-term investigations, which required thoughtful planning, public information requests, weeks of data analysis, and follow-up reporting.

I also anticipated what background information would be useful for my series down the line, and launched the series with a story that outlined the struggles women had been dealing with as a result of the state’s previous decisions, and summarized the state’s plans for creating new programs to expand women’s access to care moving forward. Then I planned the main investigations based on the order that necessary data requests would become available. For example, the records on abortion facility safety records were available at the start of my series, while I needed to wait until the Texas Women’s Health Program had been in operation for more than six months before requesting claims data and analyzing the changes in access to care.

2) Balance breaking news coverage with long-term investigations. My series covers a wide range of breaking news, such as the court battle on the new abortion regulations. Providing consistent breaking news coverage helps maintain your reputation as the go-to source for developments on your topic, but sometimes, it can take away from your work on long-term investigations. Pick and choose what’s worthy of a daily story, and what would be better to file away as a detail for a deeper think piece.

For example, rather than write about the closure of each abortion facility, I spent additional time collecting data and building a map to show the total number of abortion facilities that closed or planned to close.

3) Follow the data trail. Request public records. If you receive PDFs, like abortion clinics safety inspection records, organize them in a spreadsheet, build your own database and analyze the information. Don’t be afraid of complicated health care data, such as claims records and long provider lists. Call up experts in the state or federal health department that created the data, consumer advocates, hospital administrators and other health reporters who can help you analyze the information correctly.

4) Write to the middle. While writing about abortion, I found the most outspoken in my audience were on one political extreme or the other. I always tried to write in a way that captured the nuance of my interviewees’ perspectives, whether they were pro-life or pro-choice, so that those in the middle of the debate could understand why both sides really felt and believed as they did. You know you’ve done something right when people on both sides of a debate love and hate you in the comments section.

5) Tweet, tweet, tweet. On the night of the filibuster, I gained more than 5,000 followers from my avid tweeting of the night’s developments. You build a larger audience for your subject by maintaining a Twitter presence. Your followers will look to you for information and developments on that topic.

For my series, I kept my growing audience engaged by tweeting on a near-daily basis with breaking news developments, stories I’d written within the last week, and others’ coverage of women’s health issues.

Photo by ann harkness via Flickr.


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