Reporting vs. pontificating at Baylor

WACO — Every decade or so a journalism storm hits Baylor University, leading to a wave of ink about Baptists, sex and freedom of the press.

The most famous was a controversy two decades ago about Baylor coeds in Playboy. Right now, folks are hyperventilating about a student newspaper editorial supporting same-sex marriage. The Lariat editorial concluded:

Like many heterosexual couples, many gay couples share deep bonds of love, some so strong they’ve persevered years of discrimination for their choice to co-habitate with and date one another. Just as it isn’t fair to discriminate against someone for their skin color, heritage or religious beliefs, it isn’t fair to discriminate against someone for their sexual orientation. Shouldn’t gay couples be allowed to enjoy the benefits and happiness of marriage, too?

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I know how these dramas tend to play out, because back in the mid-1970s there was another blowup in which a handful of students tried to write actual news stories — not editorials, but news stories — that Baylor administrators opposed. In that case, I was one of the journalism students who got caught in the crossfire. It’s interesting to note that some of the administrators who crushed us back them are often hailed in the media these days as the enlightened, progressive voices at Baylor. Times change.

The latest controversy comes in the midst of national headlines about Baylor, headlines focusing on scandals in the basketball program and bitter divisions in the faculty over what is and what is not `Christian education.` There is a lot I could say about all of that, since I speak fluent Baylor-ese. Maybe some other time.

But this is a journalism blog, so let’s pause for a second and consider a different journalism-education scenario for this latest Baylor storm.

Let’s say that the students did not resort to writing an editorial about one of the most divisive issues in American culture. After all, the quick-strike strategy of writing an editorial — when seen in the context of continuing Baylor controversies — was almost certainly a trial balloon seeking headlines in the Waco Tribune-Herald and through that coverage the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and perhaps even The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Let’s say that, instead of writing that easy editorial, the editors assigned their best reporters to write two news feature stories.

Like any religious institution in the era after James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars, we can say that Baylor has its `camp of the progressives` (truth is personal and experiential) and its `camp of the orthodox` (revealed truth is eternal and absolute). This is, after all, what the ongoing Baylor academic warfare is all about.

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So the Lariat devotes one 2,000-word story to the views of the Baylor progressives, who explain why they think that changing U.S. laws to favor same-sex marriage is a good thing. They also explain how this affects their views of public education, free speech, freedom of assembly and religious liberty. They say what they have to say on the record.

Then the Lariat devotes a 2,000-word story to the views of the orthodox, those who believe that America should not embrace a fundamental redefinition of marriage. Baylor has national-level people who can address this issue. They also are quoted, on the record, answering the same set of questions.

After these stories run, the Lariat editors might want to write an editorial. On an issue this hot, it would certainly help to offer dissenting voices a chance to speak, as well.

This is, in my way of thinking, a more journalistic approach. I also think it would create a different kind of controversy — a more constructive kind. Instead of fostering academic guerrilla warfare and media stereotypes, this would put more information on the record. This might even lead to informed debate.

What is the purpose of having student journalists write editorials that cause news, before they have gone through the journalistic process of writing stories that report both sides of the news? Why not treat this as a subject for news reporting?

Note that this approach would require leaders of both warring Baylor camps to speak on the record, placing their views out in the open for all the world to see — including regents, donors and parents.

I think this would be a good thing, journalistically speaking.

So here is my question, as a battle-scarred veteran of the Christian college journalism wars at Baylor and elsewhere: Which camp at Baylor would oppose this open, on-the-record, journalistic scenario? The progressives or the orthodox?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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