Major study finds serious issues with media reporting of concealed pregnancies

Posted on: 23 March 2017

Major research from Trinity College Dublin exploring the experience of concealed pregnancy in contemporary Ireland has confirmed that far from being a phenomenon of the past, concealed pregnancies are an ongoing situation for women in Ireland today. The study also found that concealed pregnancies are often negatively and insensitively covered in media, to the potential detriment of women and babies.

Following analysis of national and international media coverage on concealed pregnancies and the experiences of the women who took part in the Health Research Board funded study, the researchers from the School of Nursing and Midwifery in Trinity are calling for the development of media reporting guidelines and better information for journalists and editors to support sensitive and responsible reporting surrounding concealed pregnancy.

A concealed or hidden pregnancy is a situation where a woman hides her pregnancy and keeps it secret from her family and social network. Lead researcher and experienced midwife Sylvia Murphy Tighe who conducted the research at Trinity said: “Women in Ireland continue to conceal their pregnancies for a variety of complex and poorly understood reasons. We must as a nation recognise this and respond more supportively than in the past, particularly in light of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home revelations and the ongoing Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.”

Ms Murphy Tighe who is HRB Research Fellow and Lecturer at the University of Limerick described how the media dealt with concealed pregnancies when the Baby Maria and Baby Alannah cases emerged in 2015 and 2016. She said: “We know that concealed pregnancy can be a life altering and difficult experience. Despite this, media reports surrounding cases of concealment can be sensationalist and emotive in tone. There were repeated calls for reunification of the mother and infant in the case of Baby Maria and yet no helpline numbers were offered in media reports. This demonstrates a serious lack of understanding in relation to concealed pregnancies and the difficulties involved. Indeed little to no consideration was given to the fact that another individual may have been responsible for leaving Baby Maria in Rathcoole.”

She continued: “There were also many cruel and insensitive headlines in national Irish media such as ‘dumped baby’, ‘bin bag tot’, ‘baby in bag case’, ‘mother must feel like a hunted animal.’”

Ms Murphy Tighe said: “Women who participated in the study spoke about their experiences of reading and hearing negative terms in newspapers, on TV, radio and online media outlets. They mentioned hearing terms such as ‘deceptive’, ‘lying’, ‘mad’, ‘half-wit’, ‘fallen woman’, ‘neglectful’, ‘mentally ill’ or ‘sneaky’. Such terms do not present a positive portrayal of women who have been through a traumatic, isolating and lonely experience and may contribute to notions of deviancy or victimhood. We urgently need to reshape the landscape and develop care pathways for women and offer support both during and after a concealed pregnancy.”

She called for “responsible and ethical journalism as such shocking headlines must be considered inappropriate in a modern and pluralist society and may serve to silence women and prevent them coming forward to access assistance and support.”

Associate Professor in the School of Nursing and Midwifery at Trinity and member of the research team, Joan Lalor added: “There is an urgent need for editorial oversight and press guidelines when reporting on concealed pregnancy. Sensationalist and cruel headlines relating to concealed pregnancy must cease as Ireland’s legacy of concealed pregnancy is still unfolding today. The work led by the Samaritans in collaboration with journalists into developing guidelines for media reporting on suicide is one that can be mirrored in relation to concealed pregnancy. These guidelines have led to more factual and sensitive reporting and demonstrate how effective interagency work can lead to greater understanding of such a sensitive issue.”

Sixty women came forward to share their experiences of concealed pregnancy and the researchers spoke to thirty of these women as part of The Keeping it Secret (KISS) Study – Your Story of Concealed Pregnancy. The full study which looks in depth at many of the issues surrounding concealed pregnancies including care pathways, contributing factors and more will be available in early summer 2017. 

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Yolanda Kennedy, Former Press Officer for the Faculty of Health Sciences | | +353 1 896 4168