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 (on TV3) there was no room for anyone from the pro-life lobby.

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.

As the abortion debate heats up, we can expect to see many more examples of advocacy journalism for the pro-abortion case.

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?

  • Karl du Fresne is a freelance journalist and columnist living in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.
  • First publshed on Karl du Fresne’s blog. Republished with permission.
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