When it comes to bias, make sure you give everyone the right to be wrong

You don’t have to spend long on Twitter to find allegation of bias in the media. While the ferocity and frequency of such claims might be new, for some it’s already familiar territory. Clint Aiken is the Content Editor of the Lurgan Mail in Northern Ireland, a town often used to sum up the historical divisions in the Province. Here, he shares how he and his team tread a tightrope many are becoming more familiar with…

The town of Lurgan has often been seen as the Northern Ireland problem in microcosm.

You have in essence a town which was once quite clearly at war with itself, its town centre divided by an eyesore toilet block which locals had christened Checkpoint Charlie with the grim humour we are famous for in ‘Norn Iron’

With the two communities — Protestant and Catholic — almost matching the population trends of Northern Ireland as a whole it was easy to see why documentary makers beat a hasty path to the town.

In one instance a documentary crew highlighted the divide which earned the notorious headline ‘A town called malice’ (not our headline I hasten to add).

With the communities so evenly matched and residing in very clearly defined areas the Lurgan Mail has for many years tried to straddle the divide, covering both sides of that divide ‘without fear or favour’.

It has not been an easy task with both sides often pointing to the coverage ‘the other’ has been given and accusing us of bias.

Indeed I remember in one week having a neighbour describe me as ‘the editor of the Republican News’ while a caller to the office had a different view, describing me as ‘the editor of the Protestant Telegraph’.

I prided myself on the insults — I was figuratively standing in the middle of the road and about to get knocked down.

My view on balance in the paper is a simple one — everyone has the right to be wrong and to display the full extent of their wrongness publicly.

For the day to day, week to week and year to year grind it means a balancing act which is riddled with complexity.

For a start we have the two communities — Protestant and Catholic, or unionist and nationalist if you want to take religion out of the argument (and good luck with that). Sectarianism is at the very heart of the competing nationalities which inhabit Northern Ireland or the North (we can’t even agree on what to call the place).

Within those communities you have a whole spectrum of opinion ranging from one extreme to the other loyalist at one extreme and republican at the other while unionist and nationalist inhabit what passes for the centre ground.

There are four main parties which represent these shades of opinion, and here’s where life gets interesting because not only do you have to provide a balance between orange and green but at times balance between those nuances.

So you may have Sinn Fein railing at the DUP — republican on loyalist but as the parties vie for political control you can also have republican railing on nationalist (Sinn Fein on SDLP).

Meanwhile you have the DUP and UUP contesting for the unionist vote — and it can get downright ugly at times. Add in some of the micro-parties that have emerged within unionism and the headache only gets worse.

I have always taken the view, let the story be your guide. If the story is good enough it doesn’t matter which politician is beating the drum, and if you need to balance it then just make a phone call. If it’s a story that only lends itself to one side or other then give the ‘other side’ a chance to shine in a different story. It can often be a case of not trying to achieve a balance in individual stories so much as achieving that balance within the paper as a whole.

But what we do isn’t just about the politicians — indeed we try to make our stories about the normal ‘9 to 5’ person rather than politicians. Makes the issue of balance a little less complicated.

Our aim is to provide the best variety of stories from across the political/religious divide as we possibly can. Again it may not be about balance within individual stories, so much as across the paper as a whole.

Schools, clubs and societies have long been a rich vein for stories in the weekly papers and again we aim to provide a balance of coverage, celebrate the achievement of our local students no matter where they hail from. When plugging our GCSE results coverage I aim to use a picture from a school on each side of the divide so that both get the same attention.

In sport, the divide can also make itself felt and again we endeavour to provide a balance. In the past this meant while we had two pages featuring the town’s main soccer team (with a largely unionist following) we also carried two pages of GAA coverage (with a largely nationalist following). It really was as simple and as ugly as that.

Parades have long been a contentious issue and on this one again I take the view everyone has the right to be wrong. In our parades coverage we very often had pages of pictures from a parade, while carrying coverage of those opposing that parade — counterpointed with comments from those in support.

But stepping past the politics, two big parades on our calendar come from different sections of the community at different times of the year — St Patrick’s Day and ‘Twelfth’ (July 12). We always endeavour to give both equal coverage. It ain’t rocket science and to not cover one or other would end in an unholy row.

But to end on a hopeful note, that Checkpoint Charlie toilet block is gone. It’s been replaced by a town centre artwork with two figures reaching their hands across the divide — but there was even a row over that, with all sides covered by the Lurgan Mail!

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