media bias

News coverage of abortion should go beyond quoting Catholics and Catholics alone

News coverage of abortion should go beyond quoting Catholics and Catholics alone

It looks as if 2019 will be the year where abortion takes center stage as one of the key politics issues in the ongoing feud between liberals and conservatives. Sometimes lost in all the political debates — and the news coverage — is that these issues revolve around religious beliefs.

The media’s coverage of this contentious issue can be summed up this way: secular society largely views this as a “reproductive rights issue,” while religious people see it as “murdering a baby.” Can there be some middle ground? Not likely. It explains why Supreme Court nominations have gotten messier and fueled the culture war.

What has been lacking, from a media coverage standpoint, has been broader context. This is especially true of covering those who are adamantly opposed to abortion. Evangelicals and Catholics are on one side, sharing the burden of having to defend why they believe abortion should be outlawed. On the other are educated and enlightened people (women mostly) who attend rallies and hold up placards. These are the primary mainstream media narratives fed to us each day.

This is where we are as a society. Where any issue is boiled down into a five-minute screaming match that passes for a news segment on a 24-hour cable channel to an internet meme safely shared on social media with those in your Facebook bubble. Journalism is meant to go beyond that. Which takes me to the main point here: news stories that rely on stereotypes don’t further the discussion, but only help divide us. In an age where the internet has turned many journalists into activists, it’s time to look at some data and shatter some myths.

Covering abortion in a different way since Roe v. Wade made it legal in 1973 can be a challenge. The events of the past few months — where New York state made abortion legal up until the due date to Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana’s recent new laws that place major restrictions on it — once again makes this a very big story. Heck, even President Donald Trump and Vice-President Mike Pence differ on the issue.

What about how religious people view the issue? What does it tell us about where we are as a society? How can it better inform readers and break away from the “us versus them” approach so common these days? Editors and reporters take note: Roman Catholics aren’t the only ones who largely oppose abortion.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Question for journalists: Are Baylor's LGBTQ battles about politics or doctrine?

Let’s start with this question: Does the following sequence of events add up to a news story or not?

I. The world’s most prominent Baptist academic institution — Baylor University (I’m an alum) — gets involved in some heated debates about whether the campus LGBTQ group will be recognized as an official campus organization. That would (a) give it student-fee funds and (b) signal that regents consider the group’s work to be in accord with Baylor’s mission.

II. Representatives and “Baylor Family” supporters of the group Gamma Alpha Upsilon (GAY) start a petition asking the regents to affirm what previously was known as the Sexual Identity Forum.

III. Doctrinally conservative Baylor-ites respond with a petition of their own.

Here’s an interesting point to note: Only the progressive half of that online-petition equation draws coverage from The Waco Tribune-Herald.

IV. Shortly after that, the Baylor regents decline to meet with representatives of GAY. This draws more ink from the Tribune-Herald, once again with the left side of this debate receiving coverage. There is no content from those supporting Baylor’s doctrinal stance on sex and marriage (other than quotes from university policy and doctrinal statements).

V. Things got kicked up a notch, in terms of heat and public conflict, when the Rev. Dan Freemyer of the progressive Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth delivered the benediction at one of Baylor's spring graduation rites. Baylor traditionally gives this role to a Baptist clergyperson who is the parent of one of the graduates.

There’s more. Here is the top of my national “On Religion” column this week, which served as the hook for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in): 

God is doing new things in today's world, he said, while offering blunt prayer requests on behalf of the graduates.

"God, give them the moral imagination to reject the old keys that we're trying to give them to a planet that we're poisoning by running it on fossil fuels and misplaced priorities -- a planet with too many straight, white men like me behind the steering wheel while others have been expected to sit quietly at the back of the bus," said Freemyer.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

If you follow America’s battles over religious liberty (no scare quotes), you know that things are getting complicated.

One of the most important stories out there is the search for compromises that protect the rights granted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers who affirm centuries of religious doctrines that reject this new teaching by the state.

Yes, that’s a complicated statement. It doesn’t help that America doesn’t do compromises very well, these days. It also doesn’t help that many — some would say “most” — political reporters have zero interest in learning more about these complicated church-state issues. The result, in many cases, are news reports in which it is almost impossible for readers to know what is going on or why some politicos are taking the stance that they are taking.

Case in point is this Alabama Political Reporter story that ran with this headline: “Legislature OKs bill ending marriage licenses.”

This is complicated, so let’s walk through this carefully. The key question: Who opposed this bill and why did they oppose it?

… The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill that would end the requirement that marriages must be solemnized with some sort of a ceremony and the state will no longer issue licenses giving two people permission to marry. Instead, the state will simply record that a marriage exists.

Senate Bill 69 is sponsored by state Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.

Under Alabama law, marriages can only be between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that centuries-old legal standard in the highly controversial 5-to-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.

SB69 ends the requirement that there has to be a marriage ceremony. A couple will simply fill out and sign the marriage forms, pay the recording fee, and the probate judge’s office will record that there is a marriage agreement between the two parties.

“All the state needs to do is ensure that a marriage is legally formed,” Albritton told a House Committee last month. “If you want to have a ceremony go to your pastor and have it in whatever form you want to do. This takes marriage out of the state purview.”

So what we have here is a radically simplified contract system that creates a legal union — gay or straight — in the eyes of the state government.

If citizens want a “marriage” rite, they are free to arrange that with the religious or secular professional of their choice. They just need to let the state know, for legal reasons, that this has happened.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

Flashback M.Z. Hemingway thinker: Why do reporters help politicos duck abortion questions?

For a brief period of time in 1987, U.S. Rep. Patricia Schroeder made headlines by attempting to win the Democratic Party nomination to run for president.

This is the kind of thing that leads to press conferences, especially in Denver.

Schroeder was, to say the least a freethinker on a host of cultural and political leaders, including gay rights. At one press conference, I asked the congresswoman a question that went something like this (I am paraphrasing): You have said that you believe people are born gay. Do you believe that, at some point, there will be genetic evidence to back this stance and strengthen your case?

She said “yes,” but didn’t elaborate. However, she did allow me to ask a follow-up question. I asked: If that is the case, and this genetic information could be shown in prenatal tests, would you support a ban on parents choosing to abort gay fetuses?

The press aide in charge was not amused and shut that down immediately. However, I was not accosted by other journalists in the room. A few Rocky Mountain News (RIP) colleagues used to refer to this as “that Mattingly question.” They may not have approved, but some thought it was logical and, thus, fair game.

This anecdote popped into my mind when I read a re-posted 2015 think piece by Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway at The Federalist. The headline: “Why Do The Media Keep Helping Nancy Pelosi Avoid Abortion Questions?” While, obviously, she offers commentary about abortion, Hemingway is primarily asking a journalism question about bias linked to mainstream news coverage of an issue that always involves religion, morality and culture.

This media-bias question remains relevant, after all of these years — as readers could see in the comments attached to this recent Bobby Ross post: “Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote.” Thus, let’s look at this older Hemingway work.

Here’s my take: Yes, I have seen some improvement in abortion coverage, if your goal is balanced, accurate reporting that shows respect for people on both sides of the debates. Some religion-beat reporters have worked hard to talk to both sides. However, in my opinion, political-desk coverage of abortion issues has been as bad as ever — or worse.

This brings us back to that Hemingway piece.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

There is a reason that I held off writing about mainstream news coverage of Rep. Brian Sims and his online activism against people praying at his local Planned Parenthood facility.

To be blunt: I was waiting for some mainstream media coverage of this digital drama. The fact that this took several days is really interesting — from a media-analysis point of view.

Let’s look at this through the “mirror image” device that your GetReligionistas have been using for years.

Let’s say that a group of LGBTQ demonstrators decided to stage protests outside the doors of the Family Research Council — peacefully reading selections from the latest version of the Book of Common Prayer. The protesters include teens and an older person who is silently using a rainbow rosary.

Then a politician approaches, perhaps a GOP leader who backs the FRC. Using his smartphone to capture the proceedings for online use, he begins berating the gay activists, using language that focuses on age, race and religious beliefs. This evangelical politico also offers to pay viewers $100 for information on the teen-agers, thus helping evangelical activists to “visit” their homes.

All of this is posted online by this member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

How quickly would this draw major coverage at CNN? How about the New York Times? Note: We’re seeking serious, original coverage, not short Associated Press stories or aggregation reports built on clips from online chatter (see this Washington Post item).

Eventually, The Philadelphia Inquirer — to its credit — followed up on the explosion of Twitter activity on this topic. The lede did use a mild version of the “Republicans pounce!” theme, but took the issue seriously. Here is a key chunk of that breakthrough mainstream-news media report:

In one video, Sims approaches a woman and three girls who appear to be in their teens outside the Planned Parenthood clinic at 12th and Locust Streets and refers to them as “pseudo-Christian protesters who’ve been out here shaming young girls for being here.”

“I’ve got $100 to anyone who will identify any of these three,” Sims says in the video, adding that he is raising money for Planned Parenthood.

The unidentified woman responds, “We’re actually here just praying for the babies.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Totally pro-LGBT slant? Religious liberty in scare quotes? Well, that's Fox News for you ...

Totally pro-LGBT slant? Religious liberty in scare quotes? Well, that's Fox News for you ...

You really have to love readers who pay close attention and are willing to tilt at windmills every now and then.

Consider this note from a GetReligion reader — a radio pro — who kept his skepticism meter turned up, even when looking for liberal bias in a rather unusual place. The headline on this rather ordinary politics-meets-business story (with religion lurking in the background, of course) is: “Amazon opposes anti-LGBT Tennessee legislation amid activist pressure.”

Yes, that’s Fox News for ya. Our pro-journalism reader sent me an email that noted the following:

Fox is usually considered friendly to conservatives, right? Then why isn't there a single quote — count 'em, ZERO — in this story from someone defending the legislation? And why did they do this: "Sponsors of the bills claim they are trying to protect 'religious freedom'"? Scare quotes around "religious freedom"? Really?

The only thing that I disagree with in that note is that I don’t think one needs to be a “conservative” to defend the old-school, liberal model of the press that asked journalists to talk to people on both sides of a hot, divisive issue, while treating their views with respect. Then again, I am also old enough to remember the church-state good old days (that would be the Clinton administration) when you didn’t need to be a “conservative” to back an old-school liberal take on religious liberty (minus the scare quotes).

What does this Fox News story have to say? The problem isn’t that it includes lots of material from LGBT activists who oppose this legislation. That’s a big part of the story. The journalism problem here is that the story totally embraces, as neutral fact, the cultural left’s views on what the legislation would do. This starts right up top:

Amazon has signed a letter opposing a raft of anti-LGBT legislation in Tennessee as the tech giant plans to expand its presence in the business-friendly state.

"Legislation that explicitly or implicitly allows discrimination against LGBT people and their families creates unnecessary liability for talent recruitment and retention, tourism, and corporate investment to the state," the open letter to Tennesse legislators states.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

What happened to old-school journalism? Reporters keep slanting United Methodist coverage

Here’s something that you don’t see every day.

I mean, it used to be perfectly normal to see a top editor at an American newspaper defend old-school virtues like balance, fairness and showing respect for people on both sides of hot-button debates. But recently, this has not been the norm — especially when dealing with news about religion and culture.

Consider, for example, recent coverage of the United Methodist Church and, especially, the trials and tribulations endured by leaders of this global denomination’s liberal U.S. establishment.

Please hear me: I have been covering this story for four decades and I know that activists and clergy on both sides have experienced lots of pain. All kinds of people have been tempted to head for the exits.

Liberal U.S. United Methodists, in particular, have seen one general conference after another vote against them, in part because the growing parts of this global — repeat GLOBAL — flock are doctrinally conservative when it comes to marriage, sex and the Bible. The left holds the high ground in American bureaucracies, but the right has more converts, more children and, thus, more votes.

Press coverage of the latest traditionalist victory, this past February in St. Louis, has been dominated by the beliefs and stories of the UMC left, usually with one quote provided by a conservative (90 percent of the time, that’s Mark Tooley of the Institute for Religion & Democracy). Click here for my post on an NBC News report that — so far — gets the gold medal for bias.

So, the other day a Toledo Blade reader named Joe Strieter wrote the newspaper’s managing editor to express concern about UMC coverage. The reader send GetReligion a copy of this very detailed letter and here is a sample:

Although the writer … did not specifically express her personal opinion, it's hard to avoid the impression that her sympathies lie with the "losing side."  …

Three people are pictured — all of them opposed to the action taken at the conference. No one is pictured who voted for or defended the resolution. …

Please respect our Commenting Policy