The Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment may have made the inevitable referendum official, but campaigners have already been in referendum mode for months.
And we must examine the role of the media in how the issue is covered. What exactly is the role of the media? Is it merely to function as an amplifier for the campaigns or should it demonstrate an investigative function?
If it serves merely as a broadcaster of the argument rather than an examiner of the arguments then it’s little more than an obsolete arm of social media. It has but to retweet the campaigns’ soundbites and sit back satisfied that its job is done.
If, however, the media decides to act as it is supposed to act in a liberal democracy, then it will seek to distinguish between the ideological and the factual. One side claims that pregnant women should be considered more important than the foetuses they carry, in any and all circumstances. Another side claims that the foetus and the pregnant woman are wholly equal. Another side claims that the pregnant woman is more important than the foetus if she got pregnant in a certain way. Another side insists that the health of the foetus determines if the woman is more important. These are ideological stances, based on sincerely held beliefs that may or not be informed by facts.
I have summarised these stances in one paragraph. It’s not hard. It’s the things claimed as facts by campaigners that journalism must examine. Parroting the stats, studies and incontrovertible truths of the campaigns is not journalism. Does abortion cause breast cancer? Is Ireland the safest country in the world to have a baby? Does comprehensive sex education and access to contraception lower the rate of abortion? Abortion causes depression? Abortion saves lives? The 8th Amendment saves lives? Does Iceland really have no babies born with Down syndrome?
Will broadcasters and print journalists just repeat these claims or will they investigate, challenge and inform?
This referendum, will be a vicious and destructive event. The media will be in a position to make hay on the anger and vitriol. They can choose to promote the ‘big fight’ or they can choose journalism.
I retain the naive hope every word will be dissected by journalists. The hope journalists will understand ‘balance’ as being the pursuit of truth. That good journalists will inform rather than merely describe.