Finding the Lost Mothers

How Adriana Gallardo and ProPublica uncovered thousands of stories of maternal health across America

Neonatal nurse Lauren Bloomstien is one of the estimated 700–900 women who die in childbirth each year in the US. Bryan Anselm for ProPublica

When the Lost Mothers project launched, Adriana Gallardo expected to engage with a few dozen people who’d experienced pregnancy and childbirth-related complications. A year later, she’s heard from nearly 5,000. The overwhelming response to this collaboration between ProPublica and NPR is thanks to an extensive crowd-sourcing and engagement effort by Gallardo and the Engagement Team at ProPublica.

Gallardo joined ProPublica last year as part of an expansion of their engagement team. As an engagement reporter at ProPublica, Gallardo is embedded in investigative projects from the start and works to build communities around the investigation who both contribute to the reporting process and are affected by the findings. While ProPublica has developed some go-to methodologies, the engagement process is improvisational and built around each new investigation. The team is rigorous in the documentation of their process and the transparency of their work is second to none. This is certainly true of the Lost Mothers project.

The project began with a callout: “Do you know someone who died or nearly died in childbirth? Help us investigate.” ProPublica and NPR set out to investigate why so many women die, or nearly die, in childbirth in the U.S. It’s estimated that between 700 and 900 women die in childbirth in the U.S. each year, the highest in the developed world. But data about these deaths and near deaths are scarce, and the stories of these women are even harder to come by. This is where the engagement team came in. Adriana and her team combed social media and crowdfunding sites like GoFundMe looking for public posts about people’s experiences with death or near death in childbirth. They would verify findings with public records or obituaries and then reach out. Social media was also where they launched the callout that accounted for the lionshare of their sources. The callout was shared by ProPublica and NPR and in less than a week they had heard from over 2,000 people offering stories.

It was imperative for Adriana and her team to engage with folks beyond the NPR or ProPublica audience. They shared the callout with Cosmopolitan.com, The Root, The Texas Tribune, and, after translating the questions into Spanish, Univision.com. Despite efforts to engage through a diverse array of outlets and platforms, Gallardo noticed a critical gap in who they were hearing from. Of the initial 2,500 responses to the questionnaire, only 75 came from black women despite the fact that black mothers die at three to four times the rate of white mothers. Addressing this gap is where Gallardo’s past engagement training came in handy.

Before joining ProPublica, Gallardo worked as a facilitator for StoryCorps and led AIR’s Localore: Finding America project. While transitioning from face-to-face and intimate community engagement work to large crowdsourcing projects can be difficult, Gallardo says the ethos of her work has remained the same. “I understand the value of making people feel heard, not just the pandering of listening,” says Gallardo. To achieve this in such a large scale engagement process, she and her team have worked to divide the 5,000 responders into smaller more manageable groups. For instance, they engaged in different ways with mothers who experienced a “near miss” or developed specific questions for those who struggled with postpartum depression. Subdividing the group also made it easier for Gallardo to foster relationships. She spent as much time on the phone or meeting up in person with these women as possible.

This back-to-basics, face-to-face approach is how Gallardo sought to address the lack of black voices in the project. The team put up fliers, showed up at events to give short presentations about their work, and attended gatherings of women of color to spread the word about the project. They made sure to represent the racial disparity in maternal care in their reporting and use those stories as a way to foster conversation. One the most effective outreach methods came directly from Gallardo’s wheelhouse. She reached out to the black mothers that ProPublica had been in contact with and asked if they would like to sit down with their mother or daughter, Storycorps style, to have a conversation about their experience with childbirth. A strong response led to five of these conversations.

Heather Dobbs, who had a ‘near miss’ in 2017, with her mother Avis Glover. Joanie Tobin for ProPublica

This engagement work has led to the formation of an important and under reported group of women. It’s also a group of women that Gallardo has built a relationship with and feels a responsibility towards. “I’m having trouble leaving them,” she says, reflecting on what comes next. As the team is winding down their reporting, they are thinking about how to maintain momentum and how to have conversations continue. Gallardo says that one of the major issues surrounding maternal deaths and near misses is that there is a severe lack of research. She’s hoping that the data, stories, and relationships built through this project can be passed along to researchers who will be able to further shine a light on this public health crisis.

The ProPublica team has been dedicated to open sourcing as much of their reporting process as possible to encourage local journalists to continue exploring these issues in their communities. They’ve published a Lost Mothers Event Toolkit for those interested in hosting an event around maternal health. Here’s a guide for replicating the Storycorps style interviews for families interested in having these conversations. Gallardo is excited for reporters to continue this work but encourages them to always consider the larger context. “This isn’t just a women’s issue, it’s a wider public health and medical accountability issue,” she says. Maternal death should be used as a lens for many other issues like education, food insecurity, or income inequality. Gallardo says, “It’s not just about nine months, it’s about who this woman was and what she did or didn’t have access to.”

Gallardo and her team are winding down their work on Lost Mothers and beginning to plan their next project. They’ll be bringing in more staffers to the engagement team to expand their work powering investigations by engaging with the communities at the heart of those stories.

Adriana Gallardo is a member of the Listening Post Collective Advisory Group. This article is the first in our newsletter series highlighting the amazing work and experiences of our LPC Advisors. Stay tuned for more!


The Listening Post Collective is a project of Internews. We provide journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.