A fair and accurate media is essential, but the audience also has work to do

(April 2021)

In his ‘Two Papal Visits’ article in February’s edition of Position Papers, the columnist Tim O’Sullivan referred to his ‘Fair and Accurate?’ booklet, published in 1984, after the referendum on enshrining the right to life of the unborn in Ireland’s Constitution.

Three years after the referendum which paved the way for abortion in Ireland, O’Sullivan’s work is worthy of closer examination.

‘Fair and Accurate?’ looked at how Ireland’s national newspapers and magazines had covered the 1983 referendum.

Choosing one week in the run-up to the vote (which resulted in 67% support for the pro-life position) the author compared the number of column inches supportive of the pro-life amendment with the column inches of news and opinion articles in opposition.

Unsurprisingly, a clear anti-amendment bias was identified. He also analysed the differences between how the national media covered both campaigns, or to be more precise, how the pro-life campaign was thoroughly investigated, while the background and motivations of the anti-amendment side were mostly ignored.

None of this would startle a discerning consumer of Irish media, and the quantitative analysis which O’Sullivan engaged in is useful.

What is far more important though is what journalists choose to cover – as the author shows in his description of how Fintan O’Toole and other journalists dug into the personalities and viewpoints of those promoting the amendment while studiously avoiding any such reporting on the anti-amendment/pro-abortion side.

Even a blatantly partisan journalist can easily maintain the illusion of objectivity by seeking comment from both sides, which is why the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s strict guidelines for maintaining balance in RTÉ programming tend not to succeed in practice.

Usually, those in positions of influence over media coverage will choose to investigate an issue or frame a particular narrative in such a way that even an apparently balanced discussion (eg, with quotes from both sides or an equal number of guests with opposing viewpoints) will be deliberately skewed.

In coverage of both abortion referendums, most of the Irish media was determined to avoid details of the procedure itself, for the obvious reason that focusing on it would repel voters.

There was also a conscious effort in 2018 not only to ignore the reality of how disabled people are systematically targeted for elimination, but to rule out-of-bounds any discussion about this issue.

By choosing the terrain on which the battle is fought, the Irish media can play a key role in determining the victor, and often does.

Related to this is the incapability of journalists to present other perspectives fairly, which O’Sullivan also identified when pointing to how how journalists failed to seriously examine the legal and ethical case for the pro-life amendment.

One of the foremost qualifications for being a journalist is the ability to comprehend other points of view. This involves listening to people’s concerns, understanding what they are based on through background research and then explaining and interrogating these positions in good faith.

In this area, Irish journalism has experienced an unquestionable decline.

Many reporters now struggle to fathom why any educated person might oppose abortion, or believe that a child needed two parents, or think that national borders are a necessary thing, or believe anything which contradicts the modern left-liberal worldview. What yesterday was a respectable opinion is now increasingly being written off as ‘hate speech.’

Why has this come about?

Traditionally, journalism was a trade, one which people learned on the job.

It was a working-class profession to a large extent, attracted people from a variety of academic and social backgrounds, all of whom were ultimately accountable to the readers at a time when most people purchased newspapers.

Recent decades have changed all this. An entry-level job now requires a university degree, and colleges have increasingly been offering journalism courses.

This has resulted in journalists being socialised together at a much earlier point, thus narrowing their perspectives and ensuring that every would-be reporter has been marinated for years in the left-wing ideology which flows through our colleges.

Simultaneously, the rise of Twitter and social media has created a new echo chamber in which journalists spend an unhealthy amount of time.

In today’s environment, a news article or broadcast interview which appears unduly sympathetic to a conservative viewpoint – or the mere examination of a potentially problematic topic, such as scandals in gender clinics involving children – would be enough to make a reporter a pariah among their own peers.

As newspaper sales continue to plummet and older readers lose interest, many in the media are left fighting for a share in a diminishing audience by enhancing their ‘Woke’ appeal and pushing issues of little interest to anyone outside this shrinking bubble.

Crucially though, this does not mean that all journalists or mainstream news outlets can be dismissed.

Nor does it mean we should exaggerate the influence which the media has: after all, the anti-amendment bias of national papers did not prevent a massive loss for their side in 1983, and the pro-repeal bias did not cause the tragic ‘Yes’ vote in 2018.

In recent times, a concerning shift has occurred where more traditionalist people are retreating from the secular media entirely.

A growing number now prefer to reside within echo chambers of their own making – some of which are eccentric in the extreme.

This is not healthy. It prevents people from gaining any broad understanding about their diverse societies, and can even push people towards a conspiratorial worldview.

More importantly, this defeatist attitude ignores the enormous value of national media discourse and ignores the good work which is done in every daily newspaper, and on every radio and television station.

Concluding his booklet, Tim O’Sullivan was right to emphasise the importance of dialogue between press and public, more necessary now than ever.

Ultimately, a ‘fair and accurate’ media will not be built from the ground up by those who ignore the existing media, and everyone who cares about advancing this goal needs to consider the cost of abandoning the primary means by which we communicate with the world around us.