Pod people: Religious liberty, inflammatory quote

On this week’s Crossroads, host Todd Wilken and I talked about media coverage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting.

That coverage was the topic of a post I wrote earlier this week in which I criticized The New York Times’ approach.

The post generated quite a bit of discussion, much of it actually related to journalism (smile). A few readers pointed out something that I did not: the Times’ use of square quotes around “religious liberty,” both in the headline and the lede.

Read John said:

I got my back up at the scare quotes in the headline, which struck me as tendentious. It casts the Bishops as dishonest aggressors rather than defenders of their liberty.

Jerry N. agreed:

I think the scare quotes in the Times headline undermine the bishops from the start; it’s similar to MSM coverage of “conscience” legislation re. healthcare providers.

Todd and I discussed the role of headlines in helping — or hindering — a newspaper’s credibility. I noted that reporters usually don’t write their own headlines, although in this case the Times headline (“Bishops Open ‘Religious Liberty’ Drive) accurately reflected the body of the story.

Also on the podcast, Todd asked me about my post on The Oklahoman’s coverage this week of the Oklahoma City Council approving a measure designed to protect gay and lesbian city employees from discrimination. In that post, I objected to my local newspaper (where I worked as a reporter and editor for nine years) quoting a pastor claiming gays commit half of murders in large cities. The paper provided no context to verify or refute the claim. I wrote:

That’s it!? With that kind of statement, don’t readers deserve to know the specific, unedited words that the pastor used?

In the comments section, reader GZeus noted that the full text of a letter the pastor sent the council was posted on the church website. The letter includes this full quote:

Judge John Martaugh, Chief Magistrate of the New York City Criminal Court, stated, “Homosexuals account for half of the murders in large cities.” (Kaifetz, J. “Homosexual Rights Are Concern for Some,” Post-Tribune, 18 December 1992.)

Plug that quote into Google, and you’ll find that it has had a long shelf life among certain anti-homosexual forces. But tracking down any evidence to back up the claim is much more difficult. Another blogger notes, too, that “account for” makes it unclear whether homosexuals are the victims or the perpetrators.

Anyway, check out the podcast.

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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.

  • Dave

    I don’t see any problem with the “scare” quotes in the cited headline. The editor is making sure you know that someone else, not the paper, is the source of the phrase. Ie, that this is a story, not an editorial.

    If you applied this consideration, some of your scare-quote cases might resolve themselves internally.

    I also don’t see this as a press failure to get religion.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby


    Would you also advocate quotes around “same-sex marriage” in the Times story?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Great question.

    Religious liberty has a long history as a legal term. LONG.

  • Dave

    I would not advocate scare quotes around “same-sex marriage” because that’s an objectively descriptive term. I would expect to see them around my favorite alternative phrase, “marriage equity,” because that term expresses a viewpoint.

    I do not deny the tenure of “religious liberty” — I’m rather fond of it myself — but the idea that this is an instance of religious liberty is, again, a viewpoint.

  • Bern

    Bishops Open Religious Liberty Drive

    It might just be me, I’m jetlagged, but without the scare quotes the headline to me suggests they are dedicating a street . . . I have no idea where! :-)

    And yes, having the scare quotes does suggest that a viewpoint is being taken–and that the NYTs among others does not share it.

    Perhaps instead

    US Bishops Open Drive for Religious Liberty