Abortion, the News and Compromised Journalism

Both Lives Matter | Blog | Abortion, the News and Compromised Journalism

As pressure grows for legal change to the abortion law in Northern Ireland and ahead of the Referendum on the Eighth Amendment in the South, we investigate the NUJ, their position on abortion and what this means for the news we consume.

The National Union of Journalists (the NUJ) has held a pro-choice position for about forty years. Here’s what they say on their website:

‘the NUJ established its first pro-choice policy in the late 1970s. The policy was unsuccessfully challenged in 1981 and debated again at the NUJ’s delegate meeting in 2014. As a result, the union has maintained a consistent stance on a woman’s right to choose…’

At the meeting referred to in 2014 the NUJ committed to ‘actively support any campaign to have British abortion legislation extended to Northern Ireland’.

You might think that a union of journalists committing to such a blunt position on a very sensitive political issue could compromise the credibility and impartiality of journalists and indeed the profession of journalism. You would be in good company – alongside the chair of the Northern Ireland Advisory Committee of the NUJ who strongly dissented to this move.

Here’s how this is reported on the National Union of Journalists website. The relevant section is highlighted below:-

“Séamus Dooley congratulated the organisers of the inaugural women’s conference in Ireland. A motion praising the conference also brought a discussion about the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to choose in the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Conference agreed to remind journalists to ensure fair and free reporting of all sides of that debate. It instructed NEC to provide support and materials to branches to enable this and to “actively support any campaign to have British abortion legislation extended to Northern Ireland”. Eamon McCann, NEC member, said it was a matter of having parity throughout the UK.

Strong dissent came from Michael Fisher, chair of the Northern Ireland committee, Irish executive council, who warned journalists in Northern Ireland could be compromised if the union adopted a partisan position.”

In the March 2014 edition (pages 4 & 5) of the Irish Journalist, the NUJ’s Irish publication, you can read a piece written by the then Chair of the Irish Executive Council of the NUJ arguing that the NUJ should not support any campaign in any forthcoming referendum. He said this,

I probably fit the stereotype of those who imagine a media world infested by card carrying liberals intent on securing reproductive rights for women, marriage equality for all and the elimination of social injustice at every level in Irish society. Well guilty as charged – and gay for good measure – but I believe with equal passion that the NUJ should not take a political position in relation to any referendum.’ He continues, ‘The NUJ is not a host for any specific, single issue political campaigns, for any political party or caucus, for any ‘fraction’ to impose upon us to fight their special issue.’

Unfortunately the NUJ in Ireland did not agree. They are a member of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions which is a partner organisation in the Repeal the Eighth Campaign.

So what? 

  1. Well to recap. The National Union of Journalists, the union for a professional body which is committed to accuracy and impartiality has a committed pro-choice position. We think it is important that everyone is aware of this as they read the news on abortion anywhere in the UK and Ireland. 
  1. These concerns about media bias are not conspiracy theory, anecdote or rumour. They are not concerns limited to those who are pro-life. The concerns were voiced publicly by the leaders of the NUJ in the North and South of Ireland. In both cases this was because of fears around perceptions of bias and compromise.
  1. The NUJ has approximately 3,500 members in Ireland and 800 members in Northern Ireland. Not everyone in the NUJ will agree with it’s position but this represents a huge number of people in a relatively small industry covering television, print and online media. This will include editors, journalists, reporters, researchers, photographers and many others on the front lines and behind the scenes. These are the people who literally make the news. They decide what is newsworthy, they choose the language and images to communicate the story and decide the narrative in which it is given context. They choose the people to give coverage to and those who are excluded. It is important to keep the NUJ’s position on the eighth amendment in mind as you read coverage of the eighth referendum in the Republic of Ireland or any story about abortion in Northern Ireland.
  1. In the name of transparency and impartiality we would ask news outlets and publications to make clear when reporting on abortion whether anyone involved in the piece is a member of the NUJ. If the National Union of Journalists want to maintain their pro-choice position that is their decision. However given the gravity of what is at stake in the Referendum and in an age where people find it increasingly difficult to trust the veracity of the news they consume, we think they have an onus to address this issue. A verbal or visual flag at the start or end of the piece, alerting the listener or viewer to the involvement of the NUJ in the piece, could help everyone to better weigh up and discern any potential bias.
  1. Here is another practical and tangible example of what we are talking about beyond the NUJ. Here is what the BBC News Style Guide directs on reporting about abortion‘Avoid pro-abortion, and use pro-choice instead. Campaigners favour a woman’s right to choose, rather than abortion itself. And use anti-abortion rather than pro-life, except where it is part of the title of a group’s name’. 

Don’t miss the clear and slanted commands being given to BBC journalists – refer to groups campaigning for abortion, not as ‘pro-abortion’ but as ‘pro-choice’ because campaigners prefer this term. Compare this with ‘use anti-abortion rather than pro-life’. Note pro-life voices are framed around what they are against, rather than what they are for. This does not seem like unbiased or fair reporting on a very sensitive issue from a public service broadcaster. We would ask them to revise this policy and to make their reporting on the matter fair.

Points for Action

  1. Did you know about this? Do others around you? If not help us to inform them by sharing this article (link).
  1. If you are unsure about any media reporting on abortion contact the news source, reporter or editor then ask them directly (via social media or email) if there is any connection to NUJ members and whether this influenced the content, tone, language or context of the article. 
  1. Join us in asking News outlets and journalists to take the initiative themselves in countering any perceptions or claims of bias by voluntarily flagging up any NUJ involvement in their reporting on abortion. Take 10 minutes and email the news sources that you watch or listen to ask them what they are doing to address your concerns around media bias and abortion.