Monday, August 5, 2019

Balanced coverage of the abortion debate? Don't hold your breath


Justice minister Andrew Little has announced details of the abortion bill to go before Parliament, and already it’s abundantly clear that we shouldn’t expect balanced media coverage.

The tone was set in an opinion piece today in which Stuff political reporter Henry Cooke wrote that the government was finally moving after years of “shameful inaction”. Politicians had put abortion in the too-hard basket ever since the “absurdity” of the current law was passed in 1977, he said.

Well, at least we now know not to expect neutral coverage of this divisive issue from Cooke. So how do things look elsewhere?

Er, not good. TV3’s 6 o’clock news last night, in an item foreshadowing today’s announcement, featured a sympathetic interview with a woman who said she was made to feel like a criminal for wanting an abortion and didn’t think there should be any statutory limits on when terminations could be carried out.

Political editor Tova O’Brien didn’t declare an explicitly partisan position but the thrust of the item was unmistakable. In a three-minute item, there was no room for anyone from the pro-life lobby.

How about state radio, then? The signs are not promising there, either. Radio New Zealand last month ran an Eyewitness programme eulogising the women who ran the Sisters Overseas Service for pregnant women wanting abortions in the 1970s.

Again, the documentary wasn’t explicitly pro-abortion, but it didn’t need to be. The women of the SOS were presented as heroines fighting for a self-evidently noble and righteous cause.

As an aside, Eyewitness recalled events of that time with such confidence and authority that listeners could have assumed the reporter/producer had personally lived through it. In fact Claire Crofton, who made the item for RNZ, is a recent arrival from Britain. She revealed in another recent programme that she’s a Brexit refugee, which possibly says something about her politics.  

Is it too much to expect that on a highly sensitive political and moral issue such as this, one that resonates deeply with New Zealanders on both sides of the debate, we might be spared propaganda made at public expense by an outsider?

Meanwhile, the anti-abortion organisation Voice for Life has accused another RNZ journalist, Susan Strongman, of collaborating with Terry Bellamak of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand in an exercise apparently aimed at discrediting pro-life pregnancy counsellors.

According to VFL, a post by Strongman on the ALRANZ Facebook page was introduced as “a request from a friendly journalist”. It said she was keen to hear from anyone who had sought pregnancy counselling “only to find they [the counsellors] are pushing a pro-life agenda”.

The post continued: “Have you ever been shown tiny fetus toys, offered baby clothes or given inaccurate information on the risks of abortion? If so, I would love to speak with you for an investigation into New Zealand’s crisis pregnancy centres.

“You can remain anonymous, and Terry can vouch for me as being a reliable and trustworthy journalist.”
Strongman finished by giving her Radio New Zealand email address and added “or you can get my mobile number off Terry”. How cosy.
VFL complained to Radio New Zealand, claiming the purpose was to undermine the fund-raising efforts of organisations such as Pregnancy Help and Pregnancy Counselling Services.
The reply from Stephen Smith, acting CEO and editor-in-chief of RNZ, blandly assured VFL there was no collaboration between Strongman and ALRANZ and that the story she was working on was not initiated by Bellamak’s organisation.
It went on to say: “RNZ journalists have contacts in many organisations and are committed to following a well-established editorial process to ensure that stories are fair and balanced.” Not exactly a resounding denial, then.
In the meantime, anyone wanting to satisfy themselves that Strongman’s stories on abortion are fair and balanced is unlikely to be reassured by a tweet that she posted on May 16. It concerned a story Strongman had written for RNZ about a woman whom she claimed contemplated suicide after being refused a second-trimester abortion.
Strongman then added: “This is what can happen when an abortion decision is not yours to make.” In those few words she segued from reportage to activism. On the strength of that, I wouldn’t trust her to write balanced stories about abortion.
As the abortion debate heats up, we can expect to see many more examples of advocacy journalism for the pro-abortion case. Overwhelmingly, the default position in media coverage is that the abortion laws are repressive and archaic and that reform is not only overdue but urgent.

But at times like this the public more than ever look to the media for impartial coverage. Is it too much to expect that journalists set aside their personal views and concentrate instead on giving people the information they need to properly weigh the conflicting arguments and form their own conclusions?

7 comments:

MarkJ said...

I've been concerned about media bias for some time now. I would be happier if journalists or publishers would just "front-up" and declare their personal views instead of hiding behind a thinly veiled contempt for one side of their stories. I've always believed that a well balanced article would present both sides of an argument equally - allowing readers to be challenged before making up their own minds. I know - it's just a pipe dream - fake news - sad. :(

Bush Apologist said...

Yeh that piece by Cooke was a shocker. Made no attempt to even bring in any form of objective journalism. The piece by Couglan today needs to be fact checked by someone as well.

Need to ramp up the release of "Unplanned" the movie released in the US earlier this year for a bit of corrective balance!

Lindsay Mitchell said...

I'm pro-choice but not pro-prejudice. Now Winston (ever with a nose for an issue that'll serve him) has thrown a spanner in the works, the debate will balloon. Why women don't avail themselves of effective contraception and avoid the predicament of unwanted pregnancy, I don't understand.

Hilary Taylor said...

Neither do I LIndsay. Good GRIEF, why can't folk get their act together over the important stuff? If it's good enough to angst over euthanasia I see no difference with abortion...and here we are again.

Bush Apologist said...

“Why women don't avail themselves of effective contraception and avoid the predicament of unwanted pregnancy, I don't understand.“
I’ve never understood why women feel pressured to have to ingest or insert hormonal contraceptive without first carefully considering what it might be doing to their bodies

David said...

Why women don't avail themselves of effective contraception and avoid the predicament of unwanted pregnancy, I don't understand.

While common, I think this argument is simplistic.

The pill has been widely available since the early 1960s. Many other female contraceptives that work even better have been available for many years. Condoms have been sold in supermarkets since the mid-1980s.

NZ schools have instructed students in great detail on the use of contraceptives since at least the 1990s, not just hormonal contraceptives, they even deploy wooden penises (alright, dildos) to show how to use condoms. My daughters found the latter hilarious in their intermediate school classrooms.

The fact that many women -- especially many young ones -- still fall pregnant despite not wanting to, suggests that the easy, free availability of contraceptives and instruction in their use in schools is not solving this problem.

Fortunately, abortion rates and actual numbers have been steadily falling, which I think is a good thing. The moral and ethical issues that some people have aside, having an abortion is not always medically straightforward, and many women become unable to have children later in life as a result.

While the thought of an abortion beyond 22 weeks (when we have been able to save 24-week prem babies for years now) makes me nauseous, I can't see a compelling reason for having abortion in the Crimes Act, given that women have sought abortions since pre-antiquity and do so in every country in every kind of society to this day. They will happen whatever the law says. Just as people have always had sex, however dimly some people might have viewed that historically.

Anna said...

I have noticed an extreme bias in favour of this legislation in the media, and also that anyone who expresses a differing viewpoint is attacked and denigrated.
I expressed my opinion (that it is horrifying that there is still a strong need for abortions when contraception is so easily accessible) on this item https://tinyurl.com/y365khy5 on the RNZ Facebook page. My comment didn’t fit the ‘prescribed thought criteria’, and I was personally attacked by a few other commenters with extremely inaccurate assumptions made about me and my life. Not my comments, but me.
It seems that on the subject of abortion, there is only one opinion to have and if one expresses a differing opinion, then one will be subject to personal attack.
I deleted my comment as those who attacked me are not interested in anything other than their own opinions.
The thought police are alive and well. And there was I thinking from all the media reports that I've read over the years, that it was the anti-abortion lobby group (of which I am NOT a member) that were the intolerant ones.