(Image by Karolina Grabowska from Pixabay)
The Irish and international media is biased in favour of legal abortion.
This is a fact. It is not going to be challenged by anyone in the Minimise Project. We accept and acknowledge this fact and we wish it were otherwise.
Notwithstanding the above, we believe that the Irish pro-life movement focuses too much on the role of media bias in creating the current situation, where the vast majority of Irish people think our abortion regime is either acceptable or insufficiently liberal. While the current level of bias in the media is a real issue for the pro-life movement, we believe that making media bias a significant focus of the pro-life movement, or trying to address media bias via public campaigning, is unlikely to do much if anything to further the pro-life cause. This is for three main reasons:
- Media bias only works on one type of “pro-lifer”
First off, it’s worth asking not why media bias was so successful in convincing so many people to adopt a pro-choice position, but instead to ask why it wasn’t even more successful. Why were committed pro-life people able to see through the media bias? Why did we not join our friends and family who said (and possibly still say) they are “against abortion” and yet ultimately decided that abortion is a necessary evil in at least some circumstances?
We think the answer rests on the difference between the two types of pro-lifer described in this post. Briefly: some people are “against abortion” because they think abortion is generally bad or distasteful, but not as bad as killing a toddler, while others are “against abortion” because they think unborn babies have equal rights to born people. The biased media in Ireland rarely ran stories or articles that challenged the notion that unborn and born babies are equal. Instead, they ran stories that highlighted how incredibly difficult pregnancy and parenting can sometimes be. Here’s the clincher: these stories will only change someone’s mind on abortion if they don’t actually believe that the unborn and the born are equal in the first place. (If you have trouble believing this, ask yourself the question: if the media were to suddenly start running a load of stories on how incredibly difficult is sometimes is to raise toddlers, would your friends and family change their minds on whether infanticide should be illegal?)
If we believe that media bias was instrumental in changing many people’s minds on abortion, then it’s because many people never believed unborn babies were our moral equals – or at least, only believed it in a loose, vague way. If the pro-life movement were to focus on changing people’s minds on the substantive issue of abortion, namely that unborn and born babies are equal, we can bypass the biased media. The media will doubtless continue to amplify stories about how difficult pregnancy can be, but these stories will increasingly fail to convince people to support abortion. Over time, as the pro-life movement is successful in changing minds, media bias on the issue will even disappear, because people at large – including journalists – will simply be pro-life.
- Media bias is a wicked problem
Of course, while bypassing the media might be a good workaround, it feels like an awful lot of work. Surely directly tackling media bias is a good idea in and of itself, especially publicly-funded media outlets such as RTÉ? This is fair enough in theory, but is very difficult in practice, because media bias is what’s known as a “wicked” problem.
The idea of wicked problems was introduced by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in their paper “Dilemmas in a general theory of planning”. (As an aside: I think this paper should be required reading for anyone who wants to effect change on a socio-economic issue, such as abortion.) Rittel and Webber give ten characteristics of what they call “wicked” problems, as opposed to “tame” problems, but I find an easy explanation of a wicked problem is one where there is no agreement on whether the problem has been solved.
Specifically: most journalists really think they are covering abortion (and indeed every issue) in a fair, impartial manner. They obviously have their own personal opinion, but they try to include different views and quotes from different sources when covering every issue, especially contentious ones. While this is good practice, the reality is that we are all biased, we are all prone to motivated reasoning, and it’s very difficult to overcome bias on our own. I’m pretty sure I would struggle to write an “unbiased” piece on abortion, and I’d bet money that if you presented anything I wrote on the topic to a broad audience, the pro-life people who read it would state that the piece was not biased at all while the pro-choice people would state it was biased in favour of the pro-life position. This is because I’m pro-life, and so my idea of an “unbiased” piece will probably still be biased in favour of my preferred position. This is a simple psychological fact: we all give credence to statements and positions that support views we agree with and downplay or ignore statements and positions that contradict views we agree with.
Pro-lifers are not the only ones to think the media is biased. Some pro-choice people think the media is biased towards the pro-life side! It’s all but impossible to come to agreement on what an “unbiased” media would look like, on any issue. This means we cannot address media bias by appealing to institutions, such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, or the Departments of Communications or Media. Nor can we appeal directly to the people of Ireland. Regardless of what they were like in the past, those people are now mostly pro-choice in their beliefs. The very media coverage we’re complaining about was, after all, convincing to them. We can’t expect them to put pressure on the media to be less biased on the basis of claims from the pro-life side.
There is not, as far as we can see, any impartial judge who will stand above the fray and acknowledge the righteousness of our claims about bias – no matter how righteous those claims actually are. We have to find another way forward.
- Media bias can’t be tackled from within the media
One nasty consequence of media bias as a wicked problem is that we can’t solve media bias from within the media. Sure, we can write Letters to the Editor and OpEds, we can engage on social media, but as long as the media outlets and the people who write for them are biased on the issue, all we’ll do is scratch the surface. Furthermore, it often looks petty, if not tone deaf, to use a media outlet to complain about how said media outlet is biased against our position. It’s hard to expect a fair and impartial hearing while alienating our audience.
So, if we don’t think focusing on media bias is a particularly productive use of our time, what should we do instead?
- Engage with and support pro-life journalists on all issues
Given how biased the media is on the issue, current and upcoming journalists who are pro-life need a huge amount of support. Journalism is a notoriously difficult field to succeed in as there is no job security, especially when you’re starting out, and aspiring pro-life journalists are facing a very hostile environment. We should be pulling out all the stops to help them advance their careers, and we should be encouraging them to cover a wide range of stories on many different issues. We need a media landscape that is welcoming of pro-life journalists, and that means helping pro-life people eke out successful careers in the media, whether or not they cover the pro-life issue with any kind of regularity, or at all.
- Reach out to fair-minded pro-choice journalists
Furthermore, within the ranks of pro-choice journalists, some are more fair and open-minded than others. Pro-life people and organisations should reach out to and build bridges with these journalists. Many of them are very sympathetic to the pressure and fear that pro-life people feel, and agree that these fears are valid and justified. Speaking from some personal experience, journalists love positive feedback. They get very little of it and tend to remember it when they do.
Letting journalists, especially pro-choice journalists, know that pro-life people of good will exist, that we appreciate fair-minded pro-choice journalists giving us a fair hearing, and that we think they are generally good people who are trying to discharge their duty of objective unbiased journalism to the best of their ability (even if they don’t always succeed) can go a long way to building support for us in the long run.
- Change minds on the substantive issue
Finally, and most importantly, we have to keep trying to change people’s minds on the substantive issue of abortion. We need to focus less on correcting the myths and half-truths perpetuated by the media, and focus more on convincing people of the equality of born and unborn people. This includes, but is not limited to, journalists.
There is no alternative course of action. We may not be able to stop the biased media making their case, but they can’t stop us making ours. We just have to have the confidence that we can succeed.
Ben and Muireann