Is ‘Balanced’ Debate Fair to Families?

Is the price of ‘balanced’ debate, in the context of the Marriage Equality Referendum in Ireland, too high? How is balance determined? Surely it is over simplistic to establish balance on the basis of air-time or column inches alone. Is facilitating the repeated airing of unfounded opinion ethical when there exists decades of empirical evidence to contradict it?

Susan Golombok, Professor of Family Research and Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge investigates the impact of new family forms on parenting and child development with specific focus on lesbian mother families, gay father families, single mothers by choice and families created by assisted reproductive technologies including in vitro fertilisation (IVF), donor insemination, egg donation and surrogacy.

After examining research stretching back over four decades she says that it is stigmatisation outside the family rather than relationships within it that creates difficulties for children in new family forms.

Some advocates of a No Vote have repeatedly been given a platform in the media to voice the opinion that children who grow up in new family forms are deprived, damaged and different because the parenting that they receive is less than that received by children who are parented by a mother-father dyad.

I understand that journalists and broadcasters give voice to such opinion in the interests of balanced debate in the context of the marriage referendum. However, I question the ethics of repeatedly doing so and express my concern that the media, by repeatedly providing a public platform for such views, are contributing to the stigmatisation of children who grow up within these family forms.

Stigmatisation leads to devaluation, discrimination and psychological distress and may be harmful to some children and their families many of whom are listening avidly to the debate because it directly affects their lives.

Arguments have been repeatedly put forward that fundamentally suggest that allowing marriage “without distinction as to their sex” will mean that Irish law cannot acknowledge anything extra -special about the relationship of “mummy, daddy and baby”, or place any unique priority on holding this relationship together.

The empirical evidence from a growing body of research from the UK, US and elsewhere does not support this viewpoint and in fact repeatedly shows that it is the quality of relationships that matters most to the well-being of families, not the number, gender, sexual orientation or genetic relatedness of the parents, or whether the child was conceived with the assistance of reproductive technology.

To give voice to opinion that children will be negatively impacted by marriage equality on one occasion, without reference to the empirical evidence, is arguably in the interests of balance, free speech and fairness. To repeatedly give a platform to such opinion and speculation is dangerous and unfair to many families as it has the capacity to fuel prejudice and discrimination which is harmful to the children and families of the types referenced in debate.
According to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) there is no automatic requirement for broadcasters to ‘balance’ a discussion with an opposing view. According to the Irish Times (8/12/14) the BAI say that it is a matter of “grave concern if national radio stations or other broadcasters used recent complaint decisions as basis for their editorial decision-making”
I call on broadcasters and other media to consider the impact that their editorial decisions have on real people. I ask them to put real children and real families before hypotheticals and argue that fairness is best served by seeking evidence rather than  simply providing a platform for opinion irrespective of the position that evidence supports.
A version of this blog was published in the Irish Times on April 24 2015


Modern Families: Parents and Children in New Family Forms by Susan Golombok published on 12 March 2015 (Cambridge University Press).

About sabinabrennan

I don't believe that we are any one thing. What and who we are at any moment in time is complex and context dependent. While labels are a useful shorthand that help us to navigate the world, all too often they play into people's prejudices and preconceptions. Here is a list of labels about me that begin with the letter 'p' Psychologist, Parent, Pro-Equality, Pacifist, Photographer, Perfectionist I could just as easily select another letter and make a different list of 'About me' labels. So try not to prejudge its just a list of labels beginning with 'p'
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