50.50: Opinion

Feminist investigative journalism can save lives

Supporting increased diversity and inclusion in the media industry isn’t just the right thing to do – it can prevent real-world suffering

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost
28 May 2021, 11.15am
Illustration by Inge Snip

For a long time I focused on topics like international finance and big business, because I wanted to be an investigative journalist and I thought these were the issues I should cover. I mistakenly saw many women’s and LGBTIQ rights topics as separate to my path, and more suited to feature-writing and commentary instead.

This changed after 2017 when I made a bet with myself – and with openDemocracy – that I could dramatically expand our then-small gender and sexuality section by moving it boldly into investigative journalism and training a new generation of women and LGBTIQ reporters to produce hard-hitting stories that have impact.

Since then, I have seen first hand the phenomenal potential that feminist investigative journalism has to change our industry, and the world around it. I have also learned that supporting increased diversity and inclusion in the media isn’t just the right thing to do – it can produce real impact, preventing pain and suffering.

This month openDemocracy’s global feminist investigations team, which I lead, received stunning news. Following our revelations of the worldwide spread of an unproven and potentially dangerous method to ‘reverse’ abortions, the UK medical regulator has taken action against a doctor providing this treatment.

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For now, the doctor has been prevented from practicing medicine unsupervised, pending further investigation. This is hugely significant – there are women in the UK, right now, that may not be at risk of haemorrhaging because of this.

Medical (as opposed to surgical) abortions consist of two pills taken over several days. They have become more common during the pandemic amid restrictions on travel and access to health facilities. The so-called ‘abortion pill reversal’ claims to interrupt the medical termination of a pregnancy with high doses of hormones.

When asked about the potential health risks of this ‘reversal’ method, the UK doctor told our undercover reporter: “At the end of the day, you live in the UK, you’ve got a hospital there and if you were worried about the bleeding, you’d go get help.”

This is a particularly scary answer if you consider that the only clinical trial into the safety and efficacy of ‘abortion pill reversal’, conducted in the US, was halted in 2019 after several participants were hospitalised with severe haemorrhaging.

The procedure prescribed to our reporter by the UK doctor sounded like shock therapy: “Put one pessary into the vagina and one pessary into the back passage. Do that every six hours for four doses, and then go down to one tablet three times a day for five days, and then just once a day right up to 14 weeks.”

It is unclear how many women this doctor personally prescribed ‘abortion pill reversal’ to. Heartbeat International, the US Christian right group that promotes this ‘treatment’, says that at least 60 women in the UK tried it in the first half of 2020.

‘Abortion pill reversal’ appears to have spread internationally – until recently, under the radar of most reporters as well as regulators. Our feminist investigative journalism has changed this – and has already led to action.

Given the global scale of health-related misinformation targeting women, the UK regulator’s action seems to be a rare case of authorities stepping in to protect us.

‘There are women in the UK, right now, that may not be at risk of haemorrhaging because of this’

For me, this proves that feminist investigative journalism is not just a good idea, it is essential for the future prospects of our incomplete democracies – which require equality regardless of gender, sexual orientation and other characteristics.

To fulfil its democratic function, journalism must expose and challenge threats to such equality. And to do this effectively, we need more women, LGBTIQ people and people of colour to produce news and drive media agendas.

It would have been impossible to reveal the worldwide spread of potentially dangerous ‘fake science’ targeting women without our talented international team of women investigative journalists who went undercover to do this. This threat to women’s health was also on our agenda in the first place because of this team.

Change the media, change the debate

The media has serious gender equality problems – and investigative journalism can feel particularly male-dominated. A 2018 study found that just 29% of UK media articles were bylined by women. “The face of watchdog journalism is male,” Sheila S. Coronel, director of Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, has warned. “Why shouldn’t women also share the power to shape public discourse, to frame the terms of policy debate, to be a watchdog for the public interest?”

Racial inequalities are also stark. Recent research from the Reuters Institute at Oxford shows that only 6% of UK journalists are non-white – compared to 20% of people in the general population. This research also found no non-white top editors at any of the country’s ten most-read online and offline outlets.

Feminist investigative journalism is an urgently-needed corrective to media industries that have long excluded diverse voices. It means putting women and LGBTIQ people in charge – and our rights on the agenda. It has phenomenal potential for fulfilling journalism’s democratic potential. It can even save lives.

Our team’s work is not done. We’re working every day to investigate organised threats to human rights and democracy, and to build a more inclusive media ecosystem. Because we know that if we change the media, we change the debate.

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