Covering Roe: journalists take on timely topic
The Justice spoke to journalists Josh Prager and Margaret Talbot to preview their in-person event on Nov. 16
On June 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court overturned the ruling of Roe v. Wade, revoking the constitutional right to abortion. In the days, weeks, and months following, abortion has been at the forefront of newsrooms across the country. But long before this decision, journalists have been digging deeper into the history and significance of Roe and reproductive rights.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Josh Prager and New Yorker staff writer Margaret Talbot are two of the journalists at the forefront of this work, dedicated to seeking out the story beyond the surface level in regard to the abortion debate. In an interview with Prager and Talbot on Friday, Nov. 4 via Zoom, they shared insights about their career paths, specifically in covering reproductive rights, and what to expect at their upcoming in-person event at the University, “Abortion: Past, Present & Future” on Nov. 16.
Prager and Talbot first fell for journalism in college where they began writing for their school newspapers – Prager at Columbia’s Spectator, and Talbot at the University of California, Berkeley’s, The Daily Californian.
Prager’s journalism journey began with a bus accident in Israel right before college that resulted in a spinal injury, leading to paralysis which put him in a wheelchair, changing the trajectory of his college life and his career. “In my freshman year, the elevators on campus were constantly, constantly broken. I wrote letters, I had meetings, but basically, Columbia would pat me on the head and say, ‘Okay little man, we’ll deal with it.’ And I just kept missing classes,” Prager said. It was only when he wrote his first article for the Spectator that ended with the sentence, “Clearly they don’t care about their students, but maybe they will care about a lawsuit,” in reference to the recent passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, that the administration’s attention shifted. Instead of going to the University of Rochester, where he initially planned on attending, Prager went to Columbia to be closer to home; and rather than playing baseball, studying music, and setting himself on the pre-med track, Prager turned to journalism, successfully advocating and representing people with disabilities, and influencing accessibility rights on the Columbia campus.
Prager’s accident and subsequent paralysis has also impacted his style of writing — he is often drawn to write stories about people whose lives have changed in an instant.
Talbot also encountered meaningful issues with critical legal implications at the start of her journalism career. During her time as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Californian during her senior year, she was part of a large project that used the Freedom of Information Act to request files about spying and FBI infiltration on the free speech movement, which was an early student movement at Berkeley in 1964 that protested a ban on on-campus political activities. “We were committed to digging up truths that had been concealed, and I felt a kind of civic spiritedness and excitement of the chase and the investigation. I was hooked on journalism,” Talbot said.
Since then, Prager and Talbot have not halted their impactful journalistic work. Both had different paths along the way, but their work met at the fork of abortion and the Roe v. Wade case.
Prager started by writing many small articles for the Wall Street Journal but ultimately shifted to long-form, magazine-style pieces. He did not end up writing about reproductive rights or abortion until 2021, when he published his book “The Family Roe,” which highlights the life of Jane Roe, whose actual name is Norma McCorvey, and the story of abortion in America. The book was actually inspired by an aside in one of Talbot’s earlier articles, yet the interview with the Justice was the first time the two met.
Likewise, Talbot also never really had a beat. She has written about a variety of different topics for the New Republic, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Yorker, where she has been since 2004. “I have a lot of interests and I’ve worked for magazines that have allowed me to pursue a wide array of interests,” she explained. While Talbot covers anything from music to abortion, a common theme in her writing is that she mainly writes narrative and long-form pieces.
In discussing what reportage would look like after the overturn of Roe v. Wade and what to expect in future coverage, Prager and Talbot noted that they intend to discuss this in depth during next week’s event and didn’t want to give away too many spoilers. However, they did preview that part of the storytelling around the topic involves placing an emphasis on humanizing people’s abortion stories. “We’re hearing a lot more stories about people’s abortions, why they made the decision, and what went into the decision of their personal experiences,” Talbot said. “And we’re hearing a little bit more from men … men are part of the story too, and a part of the decision making.” Prager agreed with Talbot adding that empathy for women’s positions and individual situations was an important element that is going to continue being incorporated into both sides of the conversation. “In the Roe opinion itself, Justice [Harry] Blackmun determined that what often determines a person’s view on abortion is exposure — exposure ‘to the raw edges of the human existence,’” Prager said. He added that certain “untruths” and truths would have to be reckoned with, one untruth being that post-abortion syndrome exists — that if a woman has an abortion, she will suffer from it emotionally. While some women may face regret or struggle about their decision to have an abortion, “the overwhelming majority of women’s studies show that women who have abortions express relief, not regret,” Prager said.
Reporting on topics as personal and taboo as abortion is difficult, especially since journalists are not necessarily speaking to public figures or politicians who are used to being interviewed. “When you’re talking to ordinary people who are going to share their stories, one thing is that you have to find somebody who feels like they are going to be okay with that,” Talbot said. The difficulty is that there’s no way to know “what sort of experience of blowback they are going to have to live through sometimes for going public with something this intimate and personal,” she continued. Talbot does her best to make her subjects aware that they might face some negative experiences by sharing their stories with the public, but also explains how the outcome of and reactions to the article cannot be predicted.
Additionally, Talbot feels that people are generally happy for the opportunity to tell their story, “so if they feel that you told it in good faith and made an effort to get it right and you did get it right, then I think most people, even if they experience some discomfort of being in the spotlight or some pushback or some negative impacts, are pretty pleased to have an opportunity to tell their story to somebody who they feel they can trust,” she said.
Similarly, Prager emphasized that “it’s very exciting when you’re onto a story, but you have to always remember you are writing about human beings.” It is critical, he explained, to be compassionate and ensure transparency with the subject about what is going to happen with their story. “If I didn’t feel that I was doing right by the people I wrote about, I would not be able to do my job,” he said. Prager also touched on how the characters of his work can be impacted by sharing their stories, explaining that it is not only important for the public to hear the truth about difficult topics, “but also it’s good for the human beings involved to be able to unburden themselves of those things they’ve been carrying.” Overall, Prager stressed the importance for writers to “take your time, [and] be fair” when writing about sensitive and personal topics.
Prager and Talbot were just getting started with diving into the history and future of abortion during this interview. They will reveal much more on Nov. 16 during the panel “Abortion: Past, Present and Future,” sponsored by the Brandeis Journalism Program and co-sponsored by the Co-Curricular Fund of Arts and Sciences and the Women’s Studies Research Center.