Step One: Quote Opposing Sides

Last night, I was reading a couple of stories that suffered from the same problem. Don’t you hate it when that happens?

The first is about how NARAL Pro-Choice North Carolina is accusing pregnancy centers in the region of various wrongdoings. The story failed to include the larger context — the campaign by pro-choice activists against pregnancy centers across the country (campaigns that have found some initial success followed by legal losses on free speech grounds). The story also called the pregnancy center folks “anti-choice.” But what was really surprising was what the reader who sent it to us noted: “Interesting that no one at the newspaper thought to go talk to anyone at one of these pro-life pregnancy centers.” Yes, good journalistic rule of thumb there.

Likewise I saw this Newsbusters analysis of a story about bullying (not the universal problem of bullying so much as that subset targeted at gay students). The story warns that students who reveal their sexual orientation might not be prepared for any backlash. Newsbusters writes, “The voices of “backlash” are too evil to quote, apparently.” Instead, we get quotes from the following:

1. Jill Marcellus, spokeswoman for the Gay-Straight Alliance Network

2. Raymond Ferronato, a 16-year-old gay junior in Antioch, California

3. Travis Brown, an anti-bullying speaker now on a 200-school tour

4. Kira Garcia, a high school senior who “could no longer stand by while witnessing gay friends being taunted”

5. Benji Delgadillo, transgender senior who “requested his history teacher include gay people in lessons”

6. Activist James Gilliam of the ACLU

It was actually a really interesting piece, but went way too far in the press release direction. I mean, if you can’t find some skeptical voices in a story dealing with human sexuality and teenagers, you’re just doing it wrong.

So now I’m reminded of a third story. Last week, a local news outlet managed to write an entire story about a significant walkout from a high school musical performance without speaking to a single kid from the group that walked out or their supporters. The group walked out of the propaganda play when two men kissed each other. The story even includes a line about an “alleged” visit from a “Bible-wielding parent.” I mean, come on.

In any case, I came across an Associated Press story that did not suffer from that problem. It’s a super touchy topic but it did a nice job of just telling the story and getting out of the way. Dryly headlined “Gay marriage, religion issues in NY clerk race,” here’s how it begins:

Longtime town clerk Rose Marie Belforti handles building permits, hunting licenses and government records for people in this farm-heavy Finger Lakes community.

Marriage licenses are a different story, because of her faith.

Shortly after New York became the sixth and largest state to sanction gay marriage this summer, Belforti told town board members her Christian beliefs preclude her from issuing licenses to same-sex couples. Her solution, to have her office issue all marriage licenses by appointment so a deputy can handle them, has irked some people. And one, Ed Easter, is challenging her as a write-in candidate, saying “what she is doing is wrong.”

The story goes into more detail about the clerk’s job (part-time, $12,000-a-year), why she won’t issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples (“I want to do what the Bible tells me to do.”), and who she is (57, grandmother, maker of artisanal cheese).

Her part-time job was thrown into serious disarray when New York lawmakers rather surprisingly passed a same-sex marriage law June 24. We learn that Belforti isn’t the only clerk to have problems:

Two clerks in rural upstate resigned rather than violate their religious beliefs by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples (Cuomo had warned that clerks don’t get to choose which laws to obey).

More commonly, clerks in New York City and elsewhere went out of their way to accommodate gay couples who wanted to get married as soon as the law was enacted July 24.

Belforti took a different path. She set up a system where a deputy, paid by the hour, would issue marriage licenses by appointment to all couples. She thought she found a solution that respected her religious views and maintained equal access to straight and gay couples.

The arrangement was quickly tested by a lesbian couple from Florida with a farm in the area. When the women appeared at her window at town hall seeking a marriage license, Belforti tried to set up an appointment and they refused. The women are represented by the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way. A lawsuit is possible, though none has been filed.

We hear from one of the women about why they’re challenging the set-up. We learn that Belforti feels that people are opposed to accommodating her faith. We learn that some of the criticism she faces comes from people who just don’t want to pay another worker. And we learn more about her write-in opponent:

The 40-year-old works at a local wine shop and has lived in town for more than a year with his wife and stepson. He had no particular dream to become a town clerk, but he felt the situation demanded that someone step up. Easter, like Belforti, is a Republican. He also is a Christian who said the issue is not his opponent’s faith.

“It’s not about attacking her beliefs,” Easter said, “it’s about her beliefs are not letting her do her job.”

Marriage licenses are a small part of the clerk’s job: Belforti said the office has never issued more than seven a year. But the controversy has resonated here. Residents asked about the issue recently all knew something about it. Some said that they liked Belforti and respected her right to her religious views, but said she should consider stepping down if she can’t do the job.

Townspeople are quoted — including one who’s voting for her even though he thinks she’s wrong on this particular issue — and we learn that Belforti reports she’s received nasty emails and a call to boycott her cheese business. Her write-in opponent disagrees with that approach.

It’s just a nice, well-reported story that did a good job of speaking with the relevant parties and letting them explain their positions in a calm and interesting way. It also includes a nice amount of legal, electoral and socio-economic analysis.

I do wish that we’d learned more specifics about the religious views of the two parties and how they could motivate them in opposing directions.

Also, this story’s existence is something of an indictment against the general approach the media take when cheerleading for gay marriage, as they do. Next time this issue is being fought at the state level, how about a few less stories of the “how in the world could anyone think for a moment that a change in marriage law would affect anyone but gay couples who’ve been barred from the institution?” stories and a few more that look at the ways that changes to marriage law affect small business owners, town clerks and high school students.

Opposing sides image via Shutterstock.

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  • Jerry

    Lest some think this kind of bias is only about religion, I read a piece today that illustrates the same problem in a scientific contest. The story was about how the media reported or did not report conflicting stories about fracking and CO2 emissions and “selection bias”, a classic problem that shows up in religion and science reporting.

    What people often don’t realize is that the media framing of scientific studies incorporates the journalist’s own perspective, whether the journalist realizes it or not. A dramatic example is the recent appearance of dueling studies on fracking that provide a natural experiment on media sensationalism.

    The immediate takeaway from this story of dueling studies is that readers should be alert to the possibility that the media is emitting its own gas into this debate. The broader point is that the media’s treatment of scientific studies should be treated as a kind of rolling health scare, a structural imbalance based on a selection bias that is unlikely to change anytime soon. So what are news consumers to do in the short run? Just remember, the most deceptive lead in science journalism is, “A new study shows…”

  • Randy McDonald


    “I saw this Newsbusters analysis of a story about bullying (not the universal problem of bullying so much as that subset targeted at gay students). The story warns that students who reveal their sexual orientation might not be prepared for any backlash. Newsbusters writes, “The voices of “backlash” are too evil to quote, apparently.””

    Newsbusters got it right, perhaps unintentionally. Treating what are seen as the discredited arguments of people opposing equality for gay people with respect is increasingly just not done, on the grounds that sexual orientation as much as race or gender or ethnicity is a personal characteristic that is ethically neutral.

    This may be something that some conservatives have not internalized. The implications of this on the other side of the political spectrum–the frustration some feel at their sincere arguments’ discounting–hasn’t been taken in, either.

  • dalea

    And just who would the voices of this ‘backlash’ be? From what I have seen and read, the backlash is not an organized group but rather random people who are not particularly articulate and do not present a very polished rationale. This is left to groups like FRC and AFA which frequently do not have a local person for the press to interview. Which leads to an imbalance of a polished PR person from a national, well funded group against a few locals who agree to be interviewed. On the list of speakers above, only the man from the ACLU might be comparable to a spokesperson from FRC or AFA.

    My observation has been that the press looks for balance in quoting. Someone from a national group for and from an equivalent group against. Or locals for and against, who are articulate and clearly part of some sort of affinity group. Usually, there is not a local bully support group, nor anyone to speak for bullies.

    So, the choice of people to quote is not ideal but the best that can be found locally.

  • dalea

    The Newsbuster link is broken, leads to a GR page not found page.