‘Truth’ is, ‘scare’ quotes are biased?

As you would expect, I spend a very high percentage of my time surrounded by religious believers of various kinds — especially academic leaders from the middle of the evangelical Protestant world (and Eastern Orthodox folks from my own parish).

When you do what I do, this means that I spend a lot of my time listening to religious believers complain about the state of American journalism. In return, they listen to me argue that mainstream journalism isn’t perfect (we live in a sinful, fallen world), but that the classic American approach to journalism has more strengths than weaknesses and that it beats the alternatives.

I mean, do you want to live in a world in which journalism is defined as Rush Limbaugh yelling at Jon Stewart? OK, please don’t answer that one.

Truth be told, there are a great many things that non-journalists do not understand about life in a real newsroom. For example, I have found that very few news consumers understand that reporters do not write the headlines that grace (or twist) their stories. Many, many, many people do not understand that there is a difference — OK, there is supposed to be a difference — between a hard-news story on A1 and an op-ed column in the editorial pages. Many people turn on MSNBC or Fox News and do not understand that there are different editorial standards for the basic news programs than there are for the spin-spin-spin talk festivals led by the high-profile blowhards. (Read this timely piece by Ted Koppel and weep.)

So where am I going with this? For many readers, you see, journalism contains more than its share of mysteries and some are rather aggravating.

Let’s say you are in Douglas Country, Oregon, and you pick up your copy of The News Review and note the following story about yet another clash between a religious believer and a government office, between gay rights and religious liberty. Here’s the top of the story, which echoes events in several other settings across the nation:

A federal jury is scheduled to decide in the spring whether a Douglas County clerk was wrongly fired after she objected on religious grounds to registering same-sex couples as domestic partners.

Kathy Slater, who worked for the county for more than a decade before she was dismissed in February 2008, is seeking unspecified damages and attorney fees. A judge recently ruled that the lawsuit, which was filed last year in U.S. District Court in Eugene, can go to trial, rejecting a county motion to dismiss the suit as unfounded.

Slater, 49, contends the county could have accommodated her “sincerely held religious belief” by having the other five clerks in the office register same-sex couples, which takes about 10 minutes per couple.

County Clerk Barbara Nielsen said granting Slater’s request would have posed an undue hardship on her office. It would have meant pulling clerks away from other duties and could have caused couples to wait. As a result, Nielsen said she was not legally obligated to accommodate Slater.

Now, I understand that the phrase “sincerely held religious belief” is a direct quotation, although I would predict that the clerk said “beliefs” — plural. I also predict, based on previous cases, that Slater faced another issue in her workplace. What are the odds that the office, logically enough, also had a firm conflict-of-interest policy in which clerks were required to refer cases to another clerk if there was any chance that their own beliefs might negatively impact their handling of cases? In other words, a Catch 22.

But we don’t know that. We do know that Slater is a conservative Christian, due to material that is clearly reported in the story. Now read the following passage closely and make sure that you read until the final zinger.

(Slater) said she objected to homosexual activity because it’s an “abomination.” In her deposition, Slater said registering same-sex couples would have made her feel she was condoning homosexuality.

“I knew in my heart I couldn’t do it,” she said in the deposition.

Slater, who attended Boise Bible College in Boise, Idaho, for two years in the 1980s, said she was guided by the Bible, which she described as the “truth.”

Now, the “abomination” quote is biblical material. It’s possible that the clerk put that term in a more broadly defined context or maybe she didn’t. It may be that the reporter thought it was a simple statement of her opinion and did not know that this believer was using a biblical term. To say that this is a controversial issue is a wild understatement.

So, no scare quotes there. The use of those quotes wasn’t a journalistic abomination.

No, the quotation marks that probably raised a few eyebrows are a few sentences later — when readers are given the shocking news that Slater believes that the Bible contains “truth.”

Raise your hand if you think that the sentence in question could have ended after the word “Bible.”

Now, raise your hand if you are surprised that religious believers — liberal and conservative — in a wide variety of faith traditions believe that their scriptures contain “truth.”

Well, there go a few more newspaper subscriptions. Sigh.

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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.

  • http://www.nocheapshots.blogspot.com Elizabeth

    Great distinctions, Terry.

    I worry often that we live in a media universe growing so polarized that people mix up the spin with the facts — and are part of completely different narratives.

    This story seems to be a great example of someone who is either ignorant about faith or has a tin ear for it.

    But after all, what is “truth?” ;-)

  • Michel

    I started my career as a writer thirty years ago doing newspaper layout so I know all about writing the headline to face the space over the story and writing the cutline that fits the space under the photo. Yes, a lot of critics don’t get this.

    But, you know, it is precisely because those things are dashed off to fill the space that they sometimes tell us an awful lot about the biases of journalists and editors. I’ve seen a lot of headlines that all too accurately reflected what editors and journalists really think when they aren’t carefully concealing their biases. Sometimes the critics are quite right to point at those headlines and cutlines.

  • Dave

    I would give The News Review the benefit of the doubt and assume, until proven otherwise, that Slater used both the terms “abomination” and “truth,” so those are direct quotes, not scare quotes. The reporter or the paper wanted to be sure the readers didn’t think the paper was using these terms, merely reporting them.

    I further don’t see why we need speculate as to how acquainted Slater or the reporter were with “abomination.” That word has been tossed around in this context for generations and rather intensely of late. I would assume it’s part of the American vocabulary.

  • Jerry

    I would give The News Review the benefit of the doubt and assume, until proven otherwise, that Slater used both the terms “abomination” and “truth,” so those are direct quotes, not scare quotes.

    Dave’s point is well worth underlining.

    We make value judgments based on assumptions and typically for the media assumptions of bias. In some cases the assumption is justified but sometimes it’s not.

    In this case, Dave made an assumption of proper reporting rather than an assumption of bias. In this era of increasing polarization, we know, of course, who is evil (them) and who is good (us) and so we know which quote is a direct quote and which is a scare quote based on whether or not the media or the reporter (or editor) is, a priori, good or evil.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    @ tmatt: “What are the odds that the office, logically enough, also had a firm conflict-of-interest policy in which clerks were required to refer cases to another clerk if there was any chance that their own beliefs might negatively impact their handling of cases?”

    That would be the case if it was seen as a legitimate conflict of interest, sure. What I suspect is going on is that the refusal by this clerk to register domestic partnerships is not seen as legitimate, but rather, as a desire by a civil servant to deny someone service based on their personal characteristics. Race, gender, sexual orientation–none of these wold be considered valid grounds for discrimination.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    It appears from your email address that you are from Canada.

    Two questions:

    * Has a Canadian court ruled that sexual orientation actually has the same status for civil rights special protection as race, gender, age, religion, etc.?

    There has been no such decision, yet, in the United States.

    * In Canada would such a claim automatically cancel claims of religious liberty and freedom of conscience?

    That decision remains undecided here in the USA.

  • http://demographymatters.blogspot.com Donald

    @ tmatt: You’ve got me! Ontario, no less.

    Yes, discrimination against people on the grounds of sexual orientation is illegal in Canada, just like discrimination on other grounds.


    “The Canadian Human Rights Act bans (or proscribes) discrimination, including the unequal treatment of gay men, lesbians and bisexuals. In 1996, it was amended to explicitly include sexual orientation as one of the prohibited grounds of discrimination. This inclusion of sexual orientation in the Act was an express declaration by Parliament that gay and lesbian Canadians are entitled to “an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives they are able and wish to have…” (Section 2). The Canadian Human Rights Commission , which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the Act, provides further information about human rights and sexual orientation. Complaints, progress and other activities are all included in the commission’s annual reports .

    Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that every individual is to be considered equal regardless of religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, sex, age or physical or mental disability. In Egan v. Canada, [1995] 2 S.C.R. 513 , the Supreme Court of Canada held that although “sexual orientation” is not listed as a ground for discrimination in section 15(1), it constitutes an analogous ground on which claims of discrimination may be based. In Vriend v. Alberta, [1998] 1 S.C.R. 493 , the Court held that provincial human rights legislation that omitted the ground of sexual orientation violated section 15(1).”

    As it turns out, the province of Saskatchewan has been considering the question of a marriage commissioner who doesn’t want to marry same-sex couples. It’s current up before the courts and the legislature. The Canadian Civil Liberties Assocaition (http://www.ccla.org/rightswatch/?p=1223) thinks that there are grounds for exemptions in limited circumstances, i.e. in the context of communities where same-sex couples (or redhead couples, et cetera) can quickly get service from other comissioners. The general perception, though, seems to be that since marriage commissioners aren’t representing a denomination so much as they are a Canadian state that doesn’t discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate marriages, marriage commissioners have to marry all couples brought before them. (This issue hasn’t come up in other provinces, interestingly.)

    Justifying the commissioner’s decision not to issue certificates on the basis of moral issues is defensible, IMHO, Oregon being different, a legitimate case being possible to build for that, all that. But justifying it on her right to discriminate gainst people who happen not to fall into a protected category, um, why?

  • Jay

    Michel is exactly right. Forced to squeeze — and under tight deadline pressure — the copy or layout editors reveal their biases.

    Imperfect sinful world notwithstanding, the problem with the MSM is they claim to offer “truth”, but that’s become increasingly rare since All the President’s Men and Bob Woodward/Robert Redford brought advocacy to the front page and “change the world” to become the main priority of j-students and j-schools.

    At least in England, they wear their biases on their sleeves, and you can choose your poison. Besides providing a check on the mainstream ability to propagandize, having a choice of viewpoints (e.g. Guardian and Telegraph) allows a sophisticated consumer to understand how those biases have filtered the truth (no quotes there).