How should newspapers handle stories which have at their heart highly emotional belief systems held by two seemingly irreconcilable parties?
The issue comes to mind reading the Belfast Telegraph’s coverage of the controversy surrounding Northern Ireland’s first independent clinic offering abortions.
Yesterday, more than 300 people protested outside the Marie Stopes International clinic in Belfast as it opened its doors amid a tidal wave of controversy.
Abortion stirs passionate emotions the world over and Northern Ireland is no different — although ironically anti-abortion opinion is said to be one of the few common grounds of agreement amongst Northern Ireland’s divided community.
Wait a moment, let’s halt right there.
The prevailing orthodoxy across the water and further afield seems to hold that only abortion unites the endlessly bickering Protestants and Catholics of Ulster.
Not a bit of it — I can think of hundreds of issues that people here agree on, or at least reflect the same left-right split as occurs in other places: a good health service, the pound in your pocket, taxes, teaching standards, youth unemployment, bad food. The list is endless.
But it is true that views on abortion here are largely different than in England and Wales, for example. That’s why the law here reflects this: abortions are officially only permitted to preserve the life of the woman, and the local NHS carries out only a small number. However, hundreds of women travel to England every year to have the procedure, so clearly demand is also high.
Despite the apparent overwhelming support for the current legal position, the debate here is highly charged. There have been, on occasion, intemperate comments and highly-charged rhetoric. Facts and emotion are used and often abused.
I think the answer to the question about how newspapers should report highly-charged issues is quite simply to be professional. Avoid defamation, cut through the spin and, above all, follow the industry Code of Practice.
Clauses 1 (Accuracy) and 2 (Opportunity to Reply) of the Editors’ Code are key. Taking care not to publish inaccurate or misleading information is critical. Correcting inaccuracies and distortions is also essential. An opportunity to reply must be offered to wronged individuals.
Newspapers must distinguish clearly between “comment, conjecture and fact”. However, unlike TV and radio, the Press is free to be partisan.
So editors do not have to jump through hoops to be absolutely even-handed to both sides.
They are free, provided they follow the rules, to campaign, interrogate, criticise and question; even on this most emotional of subjects.