Bishop Kevin Farrell

Weekend think piece: What do journalists mean when they use the label 'moderate'?

Weekend think piece: What do journalists mean when they use the label 'moderate'?

Soon after the founding of GetReligion -- we’re talking Feb. 1, 2004 -- the leaders of The New York Times did a remarkable and candid thing.

Responding to a series of stunning setbacks (see the classic book “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin), including a plagiarism scandal that forced the resignation of the Gray Lady’s top editors, the newspaper set up an independent panel to investigate what went wrong. The result was a document called “Preserving our Readers’ Trust” that, in my opinion, is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 2005.

A major theme in the panel’s work was the need for more cultural and intellectual diversity in the Times newsroom -- especially when covering complex topics such as religion. For example, when most of the professionals in a newsroom share what they believe is an urban, tolerant, informed view of the world, they may not see their own blind spots.

Consider, for example, the power of labels. Here is a passage from the Times report that your GetReligionistas have shared in the past. This is not the only passage in the document that links religion-news coverage with this issue and others related to it:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.
We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

The term "moderate" is especially crucial when used in coverage of religion. Ask Muslims what they think of some of the labels that are often attached to their community.

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Guns blazing at Texas Catholic churches: The intriguing question facing Lone Star dioceses

Guns blazing at Texas Catholic churches: The intriguing question facing Lone Star dioceses

The Roman Catholic bishop of Dallas is no fan of Texas' new open-carry law.

In a column that drew the attention of Religion News Service, Bishop Kevin Farrell last week ripped the "cowboy mentality" that he said "permits the open carrying of guns."

In turn, The Dallas Morning News reported this week that Farrell's remarks angered some conservative Catholics — with one blogger asking, "Why doesn’t he just call us a bunch of mouth-breathing inbred hicks and be done with it?"

Alrighty.

This was the Morning News' lede:

Plenty of Texas gun rights advocates celebrated 2016 as the year open carry finally arrived. But for some conservative Catholics, it’s another reason to clash with Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell.
The Dallas Diocese forbids parishioners from bringing guns – openly carried or concealed – to their churches. A recent online column by Farrell – described by some as “strident” – has made the Bishop’s critics even more vocal.
“Sadly, Texas has become the 45th state to embrace the cowboy mentality that permits the open carrying of guns,” Farrell wrote in his column. “It is difficult to see how this new law allowing persons with concealed handgun licenses (CHL) to openly carry firearms can accomplish anything other than cause people to feel threatened and intimidated.”
New state laws permit license holders to openly carry handguns in many places, including public college campuses. But private property owners also have the right to prohibit legal gun owners from packing.
That’s created tension from the grocery store to the pulpit.
Charles Cleaver, a North Oak Cliff Catholic and gun owner, described Farrell as a leftist with an Irish-European view of guns that doesn’t have a place in Texas. The Dublin-born bishop came to Dallas from Washington, D.C.
“He just likes to ram these things down people’s throats,” Cleaver said. “I don’t know who he’s [Farrell] trying to appeal to.”

The Dallas newspaper's report gives a voice to both extremes, although I found myself wishing for more nuance. Specifically, are there any Catholics who see pros and cons on people of faith packing heat? Is there room for any gray in this debate?

Another important piece of context missing from this story: What's happening in the rest of the Lone Star State?

Texas image via Shutterstock.com

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