No Times for middle ground on bullying?

Do you beat your wife in the morning or at night?

Do you support public schools promoting sexual diversity or do your bigoted religious beliefs require you to advocate the bullying of gay students?

So gentle readers, do you see any problems in the way those questions were framed?

Which leads to the topic of this post, a New York Times story this week that opens like this:

ANOKA, Minn. — This sprawling suburban school system, much of it within Michele Bachmann’s Congressional district, is caught in the eye of one of the country’s hottest culture wars — how homosexuality should be discussed in the schools.

After years of harsh conflict between advocates for gay students and Christian conservatives, the issue was already highly charged here. Then in July, six students brought a lawsuit contending that school officials have failed to stop relentless antigay bullying and that a district policy requiring teachers to remain “neutral” on issues of sexual orientation has fostered oppressive silence and a corrosive stigma.

Also this summer, parents and students here learned that the federal Department of Justice was deep into a civil rights investigation into complaints about unchecked harassment of gay students in the district. The inquiry is still under way.

Keep reading, and there seem to be two distinct sides to this story: Those who favor that lessons in sexual diversity be taught in the public schools and those who prefer that harassment of gay students go unchecked. There’s no middle ground, right?

This 1,000-word report is short on nuance and long on broad statements attributed to vague sources — not exactly a recipe for quality journalism. We get half a dozen references to various forms of “gay rights advocates” and “conservative Christians.” But if the sources actually quoted by name are any indication, the story leans heavily in one direction. You can probably guess which direction, since this is The New York “cheerleading” Times.

Five sources actually are quoted by name. The school’s superintendent, Dennis Carlson, takes the middle ground. Then three real people are given a voice: Kyle Rooker, a 14-year-old plaintiff who says he suffered bullying because he was perceived — rightly or wrongly — as gay; Jefferson Fietek, adviser to a recently formed Gay-Straight Alliance at his school; and Colleen Cashen, a middle school psychologist and counselor who says the district’s policy singles out homosexuality and creates “an air of shame.”

The only person quoted in favor of the district’s policy appears near the end of the story:

But conservative parents have organized to lobby against change. “Saying that you should accept two moms as a normal family — that would be advocacy,” said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council. “There should be no tolerance of bullying, but these groups are using the issue to try to press a social agenda.”

To be fair, the Times team notes that a group of parents closely allied with the family council declined to be interviewed, as did Bachmann.

But in a school district with 38,000 students, are there no conservative Christian parents who might share their perspective on why they support the district’s policy? Are there no pastors or other clergy members with a traditional view of the Bible’s teaching on sexuality who might be interviewed? Are there no heterosexual students who attend evangelical churches who might speak to whether they believe in bullying classmates because of their sexual orientation?

In other words, is this an issue in our public square on which there really is no middle ground? Over at his American Conservative blog, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher notes:

So let me get this right: if the public schools are seen as endorsing any particular form of religion, they’re being unconstitutional and oppressive. But if they refuse to endorse a particular and controversial view of homosexuality, they are being unconstitutional and oppressive. Got it. If these plaintiffs prevail, how sympathetic do you think the courts will be to the argument that the school system’s affirmatively gay policies stigmatize traditional Christian, Jewish, and Muslim kids as bigots, not because they have mistreated gay students, but because they are guilty of the thoughtcrime of believing in their religion?

Remember this when liberals accuse conservatives of provoking a culture war. The school system is trying to stay neutral on this issue, but it’s the cultural left that’s taking them to court to force them to take sides, when taking sides is not necessary to do what the left claims it wants them to do. This is not about protecting gay kids, but about propagandizing all the others, and using the false flag of suicide to wage culture war.

The larger issue here is journalistic: Have Times editors essentially decided that one-sided, advocacy, European-styled journalism coverage is justified? If so, what is the issue being debated? Is there evidence that anyone is actually pro-bullying? Or is this a clash between truth claims based on gay rights and truth claims based on religious liberty?

But enough of all that. Be honest: Do you beat your wife in the morning or at night? And how would you explain your actions to a reporter from the Times?

Image: Screenshot of photo that appeared with New York Times story.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Suzanne

    What I’d prefer is not so much to comb the school district for somebody, anybody, who can defend the conservative Christian POV (which frankly may not turn up anything more enlightening than is already in the story).

    Instead, I’d rather the reporter directed a lot more specific questions to the source that they actually have. Ask Mr. Prichard: What do you see as bullying? Clearly, beating up on somebody, sure. But a T-shirt saying, for example “Be Happy, Not Gay” or “Homosexuality is a sin”? Does that constitute bullying? Nasty remarks?

    And since teacher neutrality is an issue, what does he believe teachers are allowed to say in defense of a gay or lesbian student being bullied? “He’s a human being just like you and has the right to be left alone” or does that normalize homosexuality too much?

    And honestly, the gay student advocates aren’t that much more detailed in what they see as bullying and the obligation of faculty to prevent.

    The stories I’ve read on this issue tend to go about an inch deep in really sorting out what both sides believe and what they want. It’s an easy route to take, because the stories of these kids have such compelling human interest that you want to focus on them. But if you let the policy side of it just be vague talking points, we really don’t know how far apart both sides are.

  • Bennett

    “Be honest: Do you beat your wife in the morning or at night? And how would you explain your actions to a reporter from the Times?”

    Well, that all depends. Did she burn breakfast or dinner?

    *ducks* Kidding, kidding!

    I think some of the trouble here is that everyone wants to be cast in favor of something. Being either pro-life, or pro-choice. Obviously there’s hypocrisies when you commit to such absolutes. Many pro-lifers (Protestants in particular, I’ve found Catholics to be consistently reverent of all human life) are also pro-death-penalty. So, all life is sacred until the courts decide it isn’t? Well, then, abortion isn’t murder, by that logic, since the courts decided it isn’t. Similarly, pro-choice? Pro what choice? Pro all choice? We can choose anything? All choices are valid? Or just the specific one that you want to make? That is, the choice you’re in favor of, for you personally, is kosher, but you reserve the right to question other choices, for other people? A foolish consistency may be the hobgobling of little minds, but foolish inconsistency isn’t a step up in the world.

    So, are we in favor of teaching homosexuality as normal, or in favor of terrorizing gay teenagers? Well, here’s the issue. One side is in favor of something, the other, ultimately, is against that, but hasn’t said what they’re in favor of. People’s ‘defense’ of ‘traditional values’ seems to be predicated on a good offense–trying to abolish non-traditional values.

    I think the movie Fireproof and the movement accompanying it is a much better defense of marriage. Instead of worrying so much about the small percentage of gays who’d like to be married by the State, how about worry about the enormous percentage of those married by the Church, who dishonor their marriages, their spouses, and ultimately the very concepts of love and marriage. Gay advocates are totally right when they point out how cavalier heterosexuals are about their own marriages, so by what token can they be judgemental of gays’? Heck, if evangelical teenagers have such a high rate of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, and other associated ills, who are they to preach morality and purity? Remove the log from your own eye, before you put your whole social agenda on the mote in your neighbor’s

    But alas, it’s so much easier for small-minded leaders to promote hatred of an Other than love of one another.

  • Sean P

    Okay, so I’m a Christian, and I believe homosexuality is a sin, on the other hand I have a friend who is a lesbian and don’t mind talking to homosexuals, and do not bully them, while still viewing its sinful.

    There are other people I know who either are atheistic, or do not care about religion, and they say anti-gay jokes all the time.

    But, its the “Christians” who are doing it?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    But a T-shirt saying, for example “Be Happy, Not Gay” or “Homosexuality is a sin”? Does that constitute bullying? Nasty remarks?

    ****

    Uh, depends on the other shirts being worn in the school hallways, the policy that guides them and what the courts have said about the policy.

    This might simply be free speech.

    Also, were the shirts worn in response to — oh — shirts worn by others?

    But the journalism issue here is whether THE TIMES WILL EVEN ATTEMPT to cover both sides in a manner that is accurate and balanced.

  • dalea

    The GL press has had exhaustive coverage of the issue, with very detailed information on the types of bullying and on the school response. When I have time I will get some links up to the coverage in the ‘niche’ press.

  • sari

    I read and reread this post, and want to relate some personal experience. My oldest child was correctly diagnosed at seven with autism spectrum disorder; he should have been diagnosed earlier, given the number of specialists and school districts that evaluated him. This is to say that though he was verbal, he was also most definitely idiosyncratic and “odd”. Several of his classmates took it upon themselves to make his life hell–to hurt him physically, to call him names, and to threaten him. In addition, we are Jewish in Texas, which pretty much guaranteed that a small percentage of his classmates felt the need to save his soul by berating him and, yes, assaulting him.

    When we approached his principal, we were told, “Kids tease”. When we approached his teacher, we were told that she could not address behavior that she had not personally witnessed. It came down to the word of a social maladept who was unable to describe faces or even skin color against that of his socially adept peers.

    I went out one day, parked the car where I had clear view of the playground and watched recess unobserved. Here is what I saw: my son walked the perimeter, alone, and stooped every so often to look at an insect or a rock. Every so often, a child broke away from the group, ran close to him, yelled something, and ran back to the group. Over the twenty minutes, three different children approached him from behind, hit him in the back and then rejoined the central group. My observations corroborated his statements. In addition, the parent volunteers on duty failed to observe any of this, because they were deep in conversation with each other. So, the days where he melted down for (according them) no apparent reason were actually the result of being tormented by his classmates.

    We were able to approach admin with this data in hand. A program was put in place to address bullying in general; it defined bullying behavior and the consequences for bullying. For the first time, *other* parents were called about their more perfect children’s behavior, and, within a short time, the most egregious bullying stopped. The other program addressed autism, him and his classmates. The kids became much more tolerant of his behaviors and much more protective of him once they knew why was the way he was. It didn’t mean that bullying stopped entirely, but it did mean that some students stepped in to advocate for him when they witnessed bullying.

    Peer pressure works in both directions. The above happened in elementary, but the relationships made there helped protect him from the horror that is middle school. Many children who are gay deal with very similar issues from an early age; school needs to be a safe place for them, as it should be for *all* children. That is the topic the NYT should have addressed.

    Apologies for the length.

  • Suzanne

    And as long as conservative Christians continue to make “balance” a question of “They got more quotes than us!” or its variant “Their quotes were better than ours!” then they will continue to be seen as out of touch with the real issue.

    Because the central issue of this story isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the scriptural basis for aversion to homosexuality. It’s that kids are being urinated on in bathroom stalls, and how do we stop that, since pretty much everybody agrees that’s a bad thing, right?

    BTW, the approach I suggested achieves the twin goals of actually giving their side more to say, while making it substantive. With due respect to Bobby, I think trying to reach to find parents willing to talk (in an atmosphere where presumably the most informed and passionate parents REFUSE to talk) might merely result in parents who don’t know much about the issue beyond “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.”

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I love it when people say “with due respect…” :-) I always brace myself for the respectful comment to follow. Anyway…

    I think a reporter willing to actually go out and talk to people on all sides (and in the middle) and move away from the stringent talking points of both extreme positions will find some interesting perspectives, with a whole lot of honesty and nuance.

    Real journalism, in other words.

    As for the notion that only parents involved with the advocacy group have any relevant opinions, are you serious? In my days of covering a suburban city, I’d stand outside the post office (public property) and interview ordinary people about a range of issues. In most cases, I’d get better, more relevant responses than approaching the same ole talking heads at city council or school board meetings.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Bobby:

    Great comment. Precisely.

    Suzanne:

    Do you normally oppose journalism as a craft?

  • Suzanne

    Terry:

    Do you always approach dissenting viewpoints by exaggerating them out of all recognition?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Suzanne:

    Nope.

    But one of the rules of the craft is that the hotter the topic, the more you seek journalism that is accurate and balanced between the “stakeholders” in the story.

    Bobby is right. Seek more voices. You’ll get better journalism.

  • suzanne

    Bobby:
    I certainly take your point about interviewing ordinary people. But for some stories, you can take that to a point where doesn’t serve the story.

    Long ago, I worked a newspaper company (won’t say which, except that it sort of rhymes with “can it”) that put quite a premium on interviewing “real people.” “Go out and get some real people for this story.” Which we dutifully did, trotting out to diners and news stands (back when people actually had news stands to hang out at), interviewing real person after real person in an vain effort to get something more “real” than the quotes we’d gotten from those who actually knew something about the topic at hand. But they weren’t “real people” (today, we’d probably call them “elites”) so their informed opinions weren’t as authentic.

    In Prichard, the reporter had a source who know the topic well, and could give more than an emotive response. He was sadly underutilized in this story.

  • R9

    “Do you support public schools promoting sexual diversity or do your bigoted religious beliefs require you to advocate the bullying of gay students?”

    I think you’re kind of inventing an unfair accusation that hasn’t been made. The problem doesn’t seem to be advocating bullying as hamstringing what some people view as attempts to tackle it.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    No child should be bullied for anything. How about the Times looking for anti-bullying programs that tackle all bullying. Overweight kids, kids with thick glasses are frequently mercilessly bullied (I know, I have had coke bottle glasses since second grade and have always had a weight problem).
    Considering how someone who is homosexual has the option of not telling people about it–and how kids who are fat,and have to wear thick glasses can’t silence their problem–why is it gays-lesbians being bullied that gets all the interest, concern, attention–while other kids are suffering, possibly more so, than the ones written about.
    Could it be that it is all just part of the Times liberal propaganda?????

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Suzanne,

    My point is that you’re dealing with a 38,000-student school district where the majority of people apparently support the “neutral” policy of the school board. Yet the story only talks about those people and never to them. That’s not journalism.

    R9,

    I don’t understand at all what you’re trying to say. Please try again.

  • R9

    You said

    “or do your bigoted religious beliefs require you to advocate the bullying of gay students?”

    No-one is accusing anyone of advocating bullying. No one is saying “conservatives think it’s okay to bully gay children”.

    The allegation is that a neutrality on the subject that motivates the bullying, hinders attempts to tackle it.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    R9,

    Thanks for the clarification. I understand your point now.

    In reporting late last year on the debate in this same school district (a much better piece, by the way, than the Times story, although not perfect), NPR cited “growing concern that there may be a religious undercurrent to the harassment of teens who are seen as gay.”

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Suzanne:

    Bobby is not talking about person on the street interviews.

    He’s talking about differing points of view among what Poynter.org likes to call STAKEHOLDERS, people with direct connections to the story.

  • dalea

    The conservative Christian group has a name, Parents (sic) Action League and a website:

    http://www.parentsactionleague.org/

    They even have a contact page with email address but no phone numbers. So it should have been fairly easy find someone to interview. From the faq:

    Question #5:
    If we don’t approve of homosexual behavior and affirm same-sex attraction, won’t we be causing depression and unhappiness for “gay” teens?

    On the contrary, when a child has been deliberately misinformed about the causes of homosexuality and told that homosexual acts are normal and natural, all hope for recovery is taken away. Hopelessness can lead to depression and affect a child’s ability to be happy. If we really love someone, we’ll tell him or her the truth that change is possible.

  • dalea

    From the GL press:

    A link list of stories on the subject, over 100 of them:

    http://www.lgbtqnation.com/search/?cx=013955193874056232843%3A0ijmmc_xgio&cof=FORID%3A11&ie=UTF-8&q=gay+suicide+bullying&sa=Search

    Some more coverage:

    http://news.change.org/stories/gay-houston-teenager-driven-to-suicide-by-bullies

    http://www.towleroad.com/2010/11/anti-gay-bullying-blamed-in-suicide-of-pennsylvania-teen.html

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/blogs/ybenjamin/detail?entry_id=73326

    http://thenewcivilrightsmovement.com/septembers-anti-gay-bullying-suicides-there-were-a-lot-more-than-5/discrimination/2010/10/01/13297

    Right now the media is focused on five teens who committed suicide in response to what may be anti-?LGBTQ bullying. As tragic as that is, there are a lot more than five. Thanks to our readers, we believe we have found nine.

    Nine male teenagers all committed suicide in the month of September, we believe victims of bullying. There are reports that all but one were victims of anti-?LGBTQ bullying. The “type” of bullying of one, Felix Sacco, was not identified.

    A study on the subject from 2005:

    http://www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/1859.html?state=research&type=research

  • dalea

    It appears the Parents Action League is really not very reachable after all, which may account for their not being quoted:

    http://minnesotaindependent.com/64047/anti-gay-group-organizes-in-anoka-schools-as-community-deals-with-gay-suicides

    In July, a shadow group of parents formed in the district with the intention on staving off any advances for LGBT students. The Parents Action League launched its website in June along with a petition that reads, “Whereas homosexual behavior exposes participants to many life-threatening health risks; and whereas the classroom environment needs to be solely focused on academics; Therefore, we the undersigned citizens of Anoka-Hennepin School District No. 11 do whole heartedly support and desire that the School Board adhere to … the AH District 11 Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy.”

    When the Minnesota Independent asked who founded the group and if it had any connections to other “pro-family” groups in the state, an unsigned email came back: “We think our website explains very well what we’re about and who founded it – citizens in the Anoka Hennepin School District.”

    When questioned about ways to get more information about the group’s activities, the Independent was told via email, “We do not see your name on our on-line petition. Once you sign the petition, we may be contacting you” [emphasis theirs].

    The group’s domain name registration doesn’t include identities of any group members, nor is the Parents Action League registered with any entity in Minnesota such as the Secretary of State’s office.

  • sari

    Again, I’m not a journalist, but it seemed odd that the NYT reporter(s) failed to contrast sex ed curriculum standards for the state of Minnesota (general guidelines) and for the Anoka-Hennepin School District (district specific).

    The superintendent’s comments were exactly what would be expected from someone who’s been briefed by district lawyers: say something, but say nothing. The reporter seemed to have little understanding of school district dynamics. The folks most in the know about what happens on campus are forbidden from sharing that knowledge with reporters–unless they want to risk termination, litigation, or chances of promotion. District employees can be terminated for breach of confidentiality, which can mean anything from honest discussions with a parent to disclosing a student’s disability or sexual orientation without prior consent. The laws are legion.

  • Jeffrey

    I’m confused about the remedy for journalists. Bobby seems to suggest that because stakeholders won’t talk, someone should call up conservatives on the street ( or on the pulpit) to talk. But Terry days that’s not what should be done, but talk to stakeholders, who won’t talk. Which is it?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Jeffrey,

    Stakeholders are the people affected by a decision: parents who hold certain beliefs and values, educators put in the position of abiding by the policy, students in the trenches, taxpayers who foot the school district’s legal bills, chamber of commerce leaders, etc.

    The parents involved with the group that would not talk are stakeholders, yes. But they’re not the only ones. In a 38,000-student school district, there are a bunch of stakeholders — and surely some of them can be found who will discuss what they think and do so intelligently.

    How to find such stakeholders? Check the school board minutes to find names of citizens who spoke for and against the “neutral” policy when it was approved. Google for PTA presidents in the district. Walk in the front door of churches in the school district and ask to visit with the pastor. Call the weekly local newspaper and ask for source ideas. Or find the most popular hole-in-the-wall breakfast place in town and ask the regulars for insight.

    Of course, all of these ideas assume that the writer and media organization don’t already know the exact story they want to write before they talk to anyone or do any reporting.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Of course, another option would be to request this petition with more than 1,000 signatures supporting the policy from the school board. Find the most uncommon last names and start searching for phone numbers, Facebook profiles, etc. And ask: Why’d you sign the petition?

  • http://sarahboylewebber.blogspot.com/ Sarah Webber

    Sari, you’re wonderful and I hope I’m like you when I grow up. I have two autistic children, 4 and 7, and we expect to encounter bullying and are already trying to plan for how to deal with it. Karate is how my husband wants to teach them coping skills, and we may start that next year. But we have been very fortunate in our school district to have supportive teachers and staff who keep a very close eye on the playground and a program that teaches the 4th graders how to help and be buddies with the autistic kids down in the first hallway. (Our elementary schools are K-4). But I have been on a public playground with my kids and watched other kids make fun of the strange way my son talks. And I felt helpless, and it broke my heart. At my church, at our schools, my children are safe and protected and the standard of behavior is very clear and enforced. Out there, the world can be cruel. Correct behavior has to be modeled by adults and enforced by adults.


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