The Challenges of Reporting Northern Ireland
There are some senses in which being a journalist in Belfast is a comparatively easy matter. For one thing there is no shortage of information, since vast amounts of the stuff floods out daily from a wide range of sources.
The British and Irish governments pour out material, and so do dozens of political parties and interest groups in the form of e-mails, faxes, statements, and off-the-record briefings.
The trick is to avoid being overwhelmed by all of this, to stay afloat in this vast flood of material, and to sift out what's important and what's real in this propaganda-laden torrent. The truth is out there; it's tracking it down that's the hard part.
Then there is what might be called the political weather. There is not just one valid perspective on the whole thing, but many. The government, for example, has its viewpoint, but different departments see things differently, as do the police and the army.
Then there are the republicans, who are dedicated to bringing about a united Ireland, and there are the loyalists and unionists, who fervently hope this will never happen. Within these categories there are many shadings of opinion, so that Northern Ireland has about a dozen significant political parties.
In other words, there is no consensus about how the place should be run, and by whom. Given this, it is important for reporters to get used to operating in a kind of free-fall, attempting to reflect the fact that there is not really a solid centre to cling to.
The division between republican and unionist has always been there, but in more recent years the development of the peace process has been a journalistic complication.
Most support that process, but many do not since one man's peace process is another's sellout to terrorism. In personal terms most news organisations, and most reporters, tend to support that process, though a sizeable minority is opposed to it.
Journalists have had to learn that there are no absolute rights and wrongs in all this, and that it may take decades to discover whether the process will eventually deliver real peace. Reporters weigh up these matters on a day to day basis, often debating over coffee, or something stronger, on the state of the process.
In other words, journalism is on one level a day to day activity, governed always by deadlines. But at a deeper level reporters and editors have to keep questioning and debating, not just as journalists but as citizens as well.