Textbook example of balanced reporting


Gay rights vs. religious freedom.

Too often when those two forces collide, a train wreck demanding GetReligion attention of the negative kind occurs (examples here, here and here).

So when I saw this front-page San Antonio Express-News headline Thursday, I was curious to see how the story would handle the competing interests:

Firing of Macy’s worker pits freedom of religion vs. GLBT rights

Certainly, the headline gave me hope that the report would treat each side fairly. So did the byline, that of talented Godbeat pro Abe Levy.

The top of the story:

A former Macy’s employee who said she was fired for refusing to let a transgender woman use the women’s dressing room at the Rivercenter mall location is trying to get her job back.

The case, pitting freedom of religion in the workplace vs. corporations’ growing acceptance for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, has attracted national attention.

Natalie Johnson said that on Nov. 30, she confronted the customer leaving the women’s fitting room and politely made clear no men were allowed.

Johnson said the customer wore makeup and dressed in women’s clothes but was recognizably a man.

The customer argued she was a woman, but Johnson said she held her ground.

She said a manager called her in the next day.

As I kept reading, the informative but evenhanded way that the Express-News approached the story impressed me. At the end of the piece — roughly 800 words — I had no idea what the writer might think concerning who’s right and who’s wrong in this dispute. But I understood clearly the positions of the major players.

Among this story’s specific strengths:

Sourcing: Besides the fired employee, the reporter quotes a Macy’s spokeswoman, advocates on each side, the employee’s pastor and a minister at a gay-friendly church. The writer also explains why the customer is not interviewed:

The customer’s identity has not been revealed.

Context: The story provides important background that helps readers understand why the San Antonio store may taken the action it did:

In May 2010, a transgender employee at a Macy’s store in Torrance, Calif., sued the company, accusing it of gender discrimination and wrongful termination.

But since 2007, Macy’s has received the top rating of 100 percent in the Human Rights Campaign’s evaluation of corporation’s treatment of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

In the Rivercenter mall incident, Staver and Johnson said the customer was accompanied by five friends who responded to her objections with expletives. They reminded her of Macy’s GLBT-friendly policy, including the use of fitting rooms.

Ghostbusting: Since this is GetReligion, you know that we prefer stories without ghosts. This one allow both sides to express their religious views in their own words:

“Obviously, (Macy’s) policy is not equal, because I was fired for standing up for what I believe in,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t lie and say that he was a woman. I’m going to be accountable to what I say to my Lord Jesus. And I’m taking up for my female customers who might feel uncomfortable with a man in the fitting room.”

Johnson’s pastor, Bishop Robert Doxie, backed her stand.

“We believe the Bible was right when it says God created men and women,” said Doxie, who said his church is attended by 50 to 100 at an average service. “We stand on that and promote that.”

But a minister at a local GLBT-friendly Christian church said that while it may be tricky to make room for transgender people, it’s a matter of justice.

“Transgender people are who God created them to be and are authentically living it out, and that means letting them decide which bathroom or dressing room is best for them,” said the Rev. Mick Hinson of Metropolitan Community Church of San Antonio.

“Macy’s is supporting all people. I’m sorry this ex-employee felt this was a religious issue, but if that’s the case, she’ll have problems in all walks of life where people make decisions she doesn’t agree with.”

Kudos to Levy and the Express-News for a textbook example of balanced reporting.

Photo via Shutterstock

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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.

  • Stan

    This story is not a good example of balanced reporting. It is tilted toward Natalie Johnson and her lawyers. The very framing of the story as “pitting freedom of religion in the workplace vs. corporations’ growing acceptance for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people” indicates the reporter’s bias. Johnson was not fired because of her religious beliefs; she was fired because she refused to do her job. She is perfectly free to believe whatever she wants to believe, but she is not free to violate her employer’s policies (and perhaps the law of San Antonio as well) that welcome transgender customers.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    No, the bias is in your comment, not in the story, Stan. You are spouting an ideological viewpoint. GetReligion is focused on journalism.

  • Karl

    Well, the story doesn’t paraphrase faceless theological liberals who don’t want their names printed. Some articles treat people who express their opinions as protected sources.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    What was missing–and Stan brought it up indirectly–was any insight into what the law says about the situation. I think that in some states a man would be arrested for purposely going into a women’s room no matter the excuse. Whether that holds for a department store women’s dressing room would be of interest.
    I can’t imagine most women wanting men to have the run of their wash rooms or dressing rooms. Which brings up the issue of whether majorities have any rights at all to have their feelings and views of life respected and how that should be reported in the media which usually takes the side of whatever some minority is demanding.

  • Stan

    Bobby, to frame the story as “pitting freedom of religion in the workplace vs. corporations’ growing acceptance for the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people” is an ideological construction, not a journalistic one. The story is about a woman who was fired for not doing her job, and subsequently claimed that she was fired because of her religious beliefs. I cannot believe that Macy’s gives a whit about her religious beliefs. It does care that their customers do not experience discrimination and that their employees follow their policies.

  • Passing By

    The story is balanced, but left me with no sympathy for any of the players. None of them present a compelling case for their views.

    And I agree with the deacon : the missing piece is what the law says. There is more than ”equal rights” to consider, particularly the rights of women to protection (which was asserted) from predatory men. That would, I think, have made a better frame for the story.

    Also, note that, at least online, the customer is referred to as ”a transgender woman”. Is that an ideological or legal definition?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2011/02/must-read-new-yorker-investigation-of-church-of-scientology.html Nicole Neroulias

    Is this really a religious issue? Seems more like a workplace/gender debate. (There are people who would feel uncomfortable about a transgendered person in their dressing room, but not because of Jesus.)

  • Stan

    Nicole: “(There are people who would feel uncomfortable about a transgendered person in their dressing room, but not because of Jesus.)”

    I have never been inside a department store dressing room for women, but I assume that they are the same as dressing rooms for men. These rooms afford privacy. I don’t know why anyone would be uncomfortable about a transgendered person using a dressing room next to the one someone else is using. Inasmuch as no one in any dressing room that I have ever used gets completely undressed, how would you even know that a person was transgendered? This is the old “bathroom scare” that opponents of transgender rights are always evoking, but apparently the real danger to women is not a transgendered woman but a predatory male.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2011/02/must-read-new-yorker-investigation-of-church-of-scientology.html Nicole Neroulias

    Some dressing rooms are more private than others. Ideally, a store would just make each room private and unisex, though; easier for everyone, including ethicists, Christians and people who hate having to wander around to find the correct room.

  • Martha

    Stan, you make a good point. I was curious as to why this was treated as a religion story, rather than a constructive dismissal story, until I read that the store does have a policy of allowing transgender customers to use the fitting rooms of whichever gender they identify with.

    I would be curious to know what the store’s policy is, if cisgender customers complained – would the assistant be fired for not barring a transgender woman, or would she be backed up by management?

    It’s tough on the shopfloor in retail – often people don’t either know or care that the person behind the till is not the one making the policies.

  • Martha

    Stan, I can well believe you have never gone into a women’s changing room, based on what you say :-)

    Some places have individual cubicles with curtains, affording privacy. Other places just have a room with a mirror and you’re not supposed to feel any qualms about stripping down to your bra and knickers in front of an audience.

    As to how you’d know if someone was transgendered or not – the assistant said the customer was recognisably male, and if (s)he was pre-operative and wasn’t far along on hormone treatment, then yes, it would appear like a man dressed as a woman and wearing makeup.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    I agree that including what the law says (if anything) would have been helpful. I had not thought of that question when reading the story, but now that you’ve brought it up, I am curious. At the same time, the story (as is) runs just more than 800 words, which is roughly 20 column inches – probably the upper limit of a below-the-fold, weekday Page 1 story. Given the space issue, the reporter did an excellent job of focusing on the specific circumstances of this particular case.

    Is this really a religious issue? Seems more like a workplace/gender debate. (There are people who would feel uncomfortable about a transgendered person in their dressing room, but not because of Jesus.)

    I’m not sure why it can’t be a religion story and a workplace/gender debate story. GetReligion’s mantra all along has been that religion ghosts are buried in any number of stories: sports, entertainment, business, etc. But in this case, the fact that the woman is filing a complaint for religious discrimination certainly makes it a religion story.

    Also, note that, at least online, the customer is referred to as ”a transgender woman”. Is that an ideological or legal definition?

    Great question. What would be the alternative wording?: “a biological man claiming to be a transgender woman.” Anybody know if AP has style guidelines for such a situation? The thing I like about “transgender woman” is that it lets the person describe himself/herself, just like the other side is allowed to describe herself as a Christian, if that makes any sense.

    Thank you for all the comments. This may be a world record (at least for me) for comments on a positive critique. Or maybe the Saturday night crowd is just a tough one. :-)

  • Bob Smietana

    It’s a religion story – by a fine religion writer- because Johnson filed a religious discrimination complaint with EEOC.

    Here’s that section of the story:

    But Johnson wanted to keep her job, and took her case to the Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian law firm that advocates for religious freedoms.
    The firm helped her file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, saying her Christian faith and concerns for safety and privacy in a changing room were ignored.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Of course it’s a religion story. I’m just saying it’s missing a piece, that being the legal aspects.

    What would be the alternative wording?

    No idea, although “transgender woman” works for me.

    My point is that identity – from birth certificate on – has legal aspects that recognize me as a man, and just putting on a dress and make-up doesn’t change that. Does hormone treatments and surgery?

    I’m not meaning to hit too hard on this, but there is sort a GetLaw ghost here. Honestly, I would also like to see more about the “concerns for safety and privacy in a changing room”.

    And some of us, Bobby, are past the point when there’s not that much to do on Saturday night but grouse at bloggers. Yes, it’s true: I have no life. At least until baseball starts up again.

  • Will

    But according to the policy as cited in the story, neither clothing nor surgery make the difference, but only which gender you “identify as”. Presto chango, saying makes it so.

    How should we accommodate people who “identify” as vampires or dragons or elves? (See “otherkin”). If I “identify as” a dog, can I…. function in the street? And how would the press cover any of these contingencies?

    Is Roberto Adames the Mayor of New York because that is how he “identifies”? Would any news reports take that seriously?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    There is another religion angle here, you furreners won’t know about:

    The Macy’s building was originally the flagship store of Joske’s Brothers, later Joske’s of Texas. That corner depicted above was (I think) part of the original building from 1873 (predating RiverCenter Mall by a century or so) , but expanded over the years to cover most of the city block. As it turns out, St. Joseph’s Catholic Church wouldn’t sell, so they built the store around it (check out the 3rd picture down this page), and the church became known as St. Joske’s, a name that survived the absorption of Joske’s into Allied Stores and eventually Dillard’s, then Macy’s.

    I’ve always liked that story.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    This story http://www.omaha.com/article/20111120/AP09/311209928#police-fake-doc-injected-cement-in-woman-s-rear
    introduces “a woman posing as a Florida doctor”, then in the next paragraph says this is “someone police say was born a man and identifies as a woman.”

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Here’s the AP style as of 2006:

    transgender Use the pronoun preferred by the individuals who have acquired the physical characteristics of the opposite sex or present themselves in a way that does not correspond with their sex at birth.
    If that preference is not expressed, use the pronoun consistent with the way the individuals live publicly.

  • Julia

    Has transvestite now become obsolete?
    Does it still mean a person of one sex (a man) who enjoys wearing the clothing of the opposite sex, but doesn’t identify as the opposite sex? [for some reason, I've never read about a woman wearing pants or a tuxedo being described as a transvestite]

    If so, how can a store clerk distinguish between a legitimate transgenered person and a transvestite?

    If there is a distinction, must the store clerk direct the transvestite to try on the women’s clothing in the men’s dressing room?

  • sari

    To complete the story, the Joskes, as in Julius and brothers, were a Jewish family from Germany. So, the Catholic Church now carries a Jewish nickname

    I liked the article, btw.

  • http://fkclinic.blogspot.com tioedong

    What about the rights of the other customers? Did they ask any of the half naked women trying on dresses if they thought it was OK have a man in the room?

    A transgendered man post surgery and on female hormones is a woman, and probably not a problem, but how does the clerk know if he is a “she”, or just a cross-dressing heterosexual peeping Tom?

  • Stan

    Again, to allege that this story is about relgious freedom is simply to make an ideological statement. Bob Smietana says the matter is obviously settled because Johnson wanted to keep her job and enlisted the aid of “Liberty Counsel, a conservative Christian law firm that advocates for religious freedoms.”

    Uh, I would describe “Liberty Counsel” as a conservative law firm that works hard to deprive glbt people of equal rights. There is no “religious freedom” involved in a store employee discriminating against others and violating her employer’s specific policies. I suppose if one believes Rick Perry that President Obama has outlawed the celebration of Christmas because openly gay soldiers can risk their lives protecting this country, then one might also think that there is a religious right to refuse to serve people you don’t like.

  • Cheryl

    I saw the same story before it was posted and effectively analyzed here and came to the same conclusion. It’s a balanced and well written story that deals with conflicting values and constitutional rights — the right to religious freedom, and the right to privacy both for the transgendered person and for the women in the dressing room. That such conflict exists is born out by the discussion here.
    Since most but not all of the posters appear to be male, then let me assure you that privacy is an issue. Some retailers have full doors on dressing rooms — some even have all comers dressing rooms (Old Navy comes to mind) and such doors provide complete privacy. But the half-doors and partitions common in older department stores, while providing a modicum of privacy, are not what one would wish for in a dressing room shared by persons of different genders whether by birth, surgery or wishful thinking.
    Just as significantly, if women expect the dressing rooms to be used only by other women they are more likely to step out and use the three-way mirror even if the garment isn’t the right size, or they are not wearing the appropriate undergarments for it or whatever. They are entitled to know if the person walking in with an armload of dresses is a she, a he, or a transgendered person in the process of becoming one or the other.
    Macy’s could have protected the religious rights of the sales woman by offering her a position in a department where dressing rooms were not an issue. They could have protected the privacy of the women in the dressing room and the transgendered person by providing “family” dressing rooms with full doors similar to the “family” restrooms that most major stores now make available and promoting them as such.
    It will be interesting to see if any such steps are in the offing and how follow-up coverage will be handled.

  • sari

    Think about the milieu: Macy’s (formerly several other chains)-San Antonio, Texas, not Macy’s-Manhattan. This is as much a religion issue as a it is a GLBTQ issue. While salespeople must abide by their employer’s policies, blanket rules made at corporate headquarters may fail to take local sensibilities into account.

  • dalea

    The problem I have with the story is the usage of transgendered as a discriptor. This word covers a lot of territory, knowing the stage of transistion would help a lot. Without that, we are set adrift and left to speculate. Has the person begun major surguries? Are there hormone treatments? We don’t know, and thus are left to fill in blanks.

  • Eric

    I agree that the story was generally balanced — and I think that the discussion here bears that out.

    I’d have to agree, though, that it appears this woman was let go for refusing to follow her employer’s policies, or saying she wouldn’t follow them. My guess is that if this ever ends up in court, it will be determined that there’s no religious issue at stake, and that the store has the right to decide what its own policies are on dressing rooms (and if you don’t like it, shop elsewhere) — but the woman is making that claim, and that gives the story a valid religious angle.

    To me, the hole in the story — and it may be a hole because the woman wasn’t articulate enough to explain it, or perhaps her lawyers aren’t willing to make it clear — is how her religious beliefs require her to decide what other people should do about entering a dressing room. It’s obvious to me why a person out of religious conviction may not want to officiate at a same-sex marriage or perform transgender surgery, but this hardly seems like the sort of action that involves becoming a party to what the employee views as immoral conduct. At this point, we just have to take it at her word that’s what her religion requires.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    Just a reminder to keep your comments focused on journalism and media coverage. This is not the place to debate who’s right or wrong or what you personally think of the major players in the story.

  • Peggy R

    So, is a transgender woman a female-bodied person (see Colbert w/a couple of OWsers) who fancies herself a man, or a male-bodied person who fancies himself a woman? Julia is also onto something, what about “transvestite”? It is a religious freedom story and a public safety story, I think.

    If the DOJ/EEOC can make a school district give a long break during a critical time of the year to a recent hire Muslim teacher, then almost anything goes, one would think.

  • Will

    What does the “policy” actually say? Shouldn’t there be more about this in the story?

    Do I only need to say the magic words “I identify as a woman” to be allowed into rooms with women in states of undress?

    If not, what IS the requirement? Do I need medical certification of “gender dysphoria”? Don’t readers want to know?