Panel reviews press coverage of anti-abortion bill at Monday night event

People protest in May against Georgia's "heartbeat" bill at the state Capitol building. The Atlanta Press Club hosted a panel discussion Monday night of media coverage of the issue so far. (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

When Georgia became the latest Southern state to pass a strict anti-abortion bill this year, the intense glare of the national media’s attention shifted to the Gold Dome.

The coverage yielded a spate of national and local stories speculating on the bill’s impact on women, health care access and Georgia’s economy.

Could women be charged with a serious crime? Would the film industry revolt? Would the inevitable legal challenge even land at the U.S. Supreme Court when other lawsuits were already winding through the judicial process?

For now, it’s up to the courts to decide whether Georgia’s “heartbeat” measure, which effectively outlaws abortions after about six weeks, will take effect next year. Or ever.

In the meantime, Atlanta reporters are having a moment of introspection. Sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club, a panel discussion was held Monday night at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Midtown Atlanta to reflect on the coverage so far and what care reporters can take to ensure they are accurately covering the complex and emotionally charged issue.

The panel also featured two vastly opposing viewpoints: Planned Parenthood Southeast’s Staci Fox and the Georgia Life Alliance’s Josh Edmonds. Both were deep in the fray during this year’s legislative battle over the bill.

Fox called the rampant speculation that came in the wake of the bill’s passage “dangerous.”

Journalists and advocates on both sides of an anti-abortion bill signed into law in May spoke at an Atlanta Press Club panel discussion Aug. 12. (L-R) moderator Stephen Fowler, Nicquel Terry Ellis, Josh Edmonds, Maya Prabhu and Staci Fox.

“It can be very scary for readers and they don’t understand implications, and I think it’s really important that we responsibly report on the facts,” Fox said. “It’s important for people to know where the case stands and what health care is available to them.”

Fox said she has tried to emphasize that abortion is still legal in Georgia until 20 weeks into a pregnancy, since the changes would not take effect until January.

“Abortion is still safe and legal and available,” Fox said when she was asked in what ways reporters have missed the nuances of the issue. “Our call center has been flooded with calls with patients concerned, and I want to reassure them.”

Georgia’s version of the fetal “heartbeat” bill would still allow a later abortion in four situations: if the fetus is considered medically futile, if the mother’s life is at risk, or in the case of rape or incest — as long as a police report has been filed.

On the other end of the spectrum, Edmonds said he thought some reporters, particularly those who do not regularly cover Georgia politics, “glossed over” important aspects of the measure, such as the personhood components that he says make Georgia’s bill unlike the recently passed abortion restrictions in other states. Georgia’s bill would, for example, allow expectant parents to claim an embryo on their taxes.

“The nuances of the (public) support, the science and the legal nuances of this particular bill, I think, have been covered well in our media,” he said, specifically of the main Capitol press corps.

Edmonds even went as far as to say that the anti-abortion perspective was more widely represented today in Georgia-based media coverage than possibly ever before.

Maya Prabhu, a reporter who covers the issue for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and Nicquel Terry Ellis, an Atlanta-based national correspondent for U.S.A. Today, offered a journalist’s perspective. GPB’s Stephen Fowler, who covers state politics, was the moderator.

Prabhu said she strives to include multiple viewpoints and use neutral language in her coverage, leaning on the Associated Press style guide for guidance on how, for example, to characterize advocates on both sides. That can frustrate advocates who prefer certain terms, such as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.”

State lawmakers narrowly passed the bill this session, and Gov. Brian Kemp signed it into law in May. The following month, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia filed a lawsuit challenging the law’s constitutionality on behalf of abortion providers — including Fox’s organization — and an advocacy group, SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective.

The ACLU of Georgia is also asking a federal judge to block the measure from taking effect while the case is pending. Hearings in the case are set for next month.

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