As the debate over contraception coverage in health insurance plans offered by religious institutions to their employees rages in Washington, one cause for complaint’s been the way the Obama administration’s decision-making process has been covered. Of the 146 guests who have come on cable news shows to discuss the decision between Monday and Thursday, 91 were men. MSNBC’s Morning Joe has come under fire from Democratic congresswomen for not inviting women, other than show co-host Mika Brzezinski, who disapproved of the Obama administration’s initial policy, to appear on the program. And at Politico, Mike Allen’s presented the White House’s decision-making process as a boys-against-girls fight pitting strategy-minded male advisors against women who were tightly focused on the actual issue at hand: making sure women can get insurance-covered access to contraceptives. And since men in media seem to have so much trouble figuring out how to cover women’s health issues, it’s time to help them out with some simple advice:
1. Ask a woman on your show: This should be elementary advice, but apparently for too many cable hosts and cable bookers, it isn’t immediately evident that when women’s issues on the table, women’s experiences and expertise might be relevant. It would be nice if men, from cable pundits to researchers, were truly as invested in women’s health issues, from contraception access to breast cancer research, as women are. But that’s just not the way things are. And if you’ve never tried to decide between oral contraceptives, had an IUD put in, or figured out how to pay for either—much less studied the medical or insurance issues around contraception—it ought to be common sense to you that there are things that you—and your audience—can learn from people who have experience that you don’t.
2. Ask women what their experiences have been with health issues that are specific to their gender: Sure, there’s a fine line between asking creepy questions about women’s sex lives and their health. But if you’re interested in why women are so invested in access to contraception, or breast cancer funding (though breast cancer is not simply a women’s disease), or other women’s health issues, find a tactful way to show genuine curiosity. I’d be willing to bet most male pundits don’t have a good sense of the difference between what brand name and generic contraceptive pills cost, or how much costs to have an IUD in, or what it feels like to use either. And while you’re learning more about the emotions that motivate women in these policy debates, you may also fulfill your mission of delivering new information to your viewers or readers. I had no idea that oral contraceptives could be part of a diabetes maintenance regimen until someone wrote about it in a piece I saw linked on Twitter. New perspectives and new data often come forward hand in hand.
3. Treat women like any other interest group: There’s something very odd about the way women get treated when they’re advocating for the issues that affect them: as parochial and unable to see the strategic damage their needs might pose to the Democratic party. No one would ever suggest that that the National Federation of Independent Business is small-minded and undermining Republicans for lobbying to change IRS reporting requirements. So stop treating women, who are a core Democratic voting bloc, as if they’re short-sighted or selfish for expecting that a party they elect will be responsive to their needs.
4. Question the frameworks you’re given: It’s remarkable how many people who profess to believe that consumer choice and a vibrant marketplace are important, particularly in health insurance, are quick to forget about those preferences when someone suggests that a policy infringes upon religious liberty. Religious organizations that don’t want to have to cover contraceptives are also deeply invested in denying their female employees any information about where they could get competing coverage. That sounds a lot less like protecting religious liberty and a lot more like constricting consumer choice. Whether you agree with either of these frameworks for the debate, it’s not impressive journalism to just accept a narrative that’s handed to you by an interest group. Ask questions. Weigh realistic assessments of the impact a policy change. Then frame your own story.