AP editorializes on Girl Scouts

This just in: a lengthy Associated Press editorial focusing on the culture wars and the Girl Scouts of the USA.

The only problem: AP inadvertently filed the 1,500-word analysis piece as a straightforward news story.

(Yes, I realize that I just three weeks ago defended AP against claims of widespread bias. But I did point out that some AP stories “need work, both in terms of their journalistic completeness and balance.” And man, does this piece out on the wire now “need work.”)

Regular GetReligion readers may recall my post back in February titled “Thin mints on thin ice?” That post dealt with the media storm over an Indiana lawmaker labeling the Girl Scouts a “radicalized organization.”

AP’s story, written by a New York-based national writer, concerns the Girl Scouts and Catholic bishops.

Let’s start right at the top:

NEW YORK (AP) — Long a lightning rod for conservative criticism, the Girl Scouts of the USA are now facing their highest-level challenge yet: An official inquiry by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At issue are concerns about program materials that some Catholics find offensive, as well as assertions that the Scouts associate with other groups espousing stances that conflict with church teaching. The Scouts, who have numerous parish-sponsored troops, deny many of the claims and defend their alliances.

The inquiry coincides with the Scouts’ 100th anniversary celebrations and follows a chain of other controversies.

From the cliche opening (“lightning rod for conservative criticism”) to the vague, unnamed critics, the lede pretty much sets the tone for the entire piece. This is a story where the critics will be mentioned frequently but rarely identified, and typically, their criticism will be followed by a named Girl Scout source refuting the outlandish claims (as the AP writer clearly sees them).

The news peg is this:

The new inquiry will be conducted by the bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. It will look into the Scouts’ “possible problematic relationships with other organizations” and various “problematic” program materials, according to a letter sent by the committee chairman, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne, Ind., to his fellow bishops.

The bishops’ conference provided a copy of the letter to The Associated Press, but otherwise declined comment.

It does not help readers’ understanding that the bishops refused to comment. Nor does AP’s decision to quote so little of the letter benefit readers’ grasp of the specific nature of the complaints.

Throughout the piece, the side with concerns about the Girl Scouts is identified with terms such as these: “some conservatives,” “Catholic critics,” “critics” (at least three times), “most vehement critics,” “some critics” and “Christian conservatives.” Who are these people? It’s really hard to know based on the AP story.

But on the Girl Scout side, “recycled complaints” (the source of that is AP itself) are denied “repeatedly and categorically” by named sources and up high in the story:

Some of the concerns raised by Catholic critics are recycled complaints that have been denied by the Girl Scouts’ head office repeatedly and categorically. It says it has no partnership with Planned Parenthood, and does not take positions on sexuality, birth control and abortion.

“It’s been hard to get the message out there as to what is true when distortions get repeated over and over,” said Gladys Padro-Soler, the Girl Scouts’ director of inclusive membership strategies.

On the other side, scare quotes are used when a critic finally is mentioned by name nearly halfway through the story:

Mary Rice Hasson, a visiting fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington, accuses McCarty of “whitewashing” Girl Scout programs and policies that struck some Catholics as counter to church teaching.

“They just repeated the Girl Scouts’ denials,” Hasson said. “Families’ concerns were minimized or ignored.”

Later, there’s this reference to the Boy Scouts of America (with no response from the Boy Scouts):

Even in the face of criticism, the Boys Scouts stand by their policy of excluding atheists and barring gays from leadership roles. The Girl Scouts have no such policies.

“When you have a leadership brand like Girl Scouts, it’s natural that we would have some critics,” said Chavez. “We’re proud of our inclusive approach because that is what has always made this organization strong.”

This story really is a train wreck filled with broad assertions and generalizations that favor one side. It lacks the kind of old-fashioned sourcing and attribution that characterize quality, unbiased journalism.

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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.

  • Bro AJK

    This was already in the works, so why mention this now instead of in June 2011 when it was happening?

  • Jerry

    My wife has been involved with the Girl Scouts for decades so I’m utterly biased in their favor.

    But one thing I noted that really needs clarification from the AP piece

    Scouts associate with other groups espousing stances that conflict with church teaching.

    Guilt by association is a very serious charge harkening back to McCarthyism and therefore needs amongst other things links to the actual letter so people can judge.

    The story seems different when viewed through another lens: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/catholic-bishops-continue-to-delve-into-concerns-about-girl-scouts/2012/05/10/gIQAqaRlGU_story.html

    But the guilt by association charge gets further emphasis from a somewhat unexpected (by me) source:

    Kent acknowledged, however, the organization on occasion may end up “associating with people who are associating with people who are not who the Catholic Church would choose to be associating with.”

    http://catholicreview.org/article/home/dialogue-with-girl-scouts-addresses-criticisms

    That web site led me to the following letter which leaves me utterly confused. I have no idea what is going on at this point after reading the “Updated National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM) Position Statement on Girl Scouts USA (GSUSA)” http://www.nfcym.org/documents/Updated_NFCYM_Position_Statement__final201202121.pdf

    But two things are clear to me: people have seized on this as part of a culture war/war on women issue from both political sides. And second that the media is not helping by providing the needed facts.

  • Lee

    “Guilt by association is a very serious charge harkening back to McCarthyism”

    How about guilt by association with “McCarthyism”?

    I’m thinking that, along with the reductio ad Hitlerum, we should add the reductio ad McCarthyismum.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    All the bishops are doing is investigating? Isn’t that what you do when there are critics and recycled allegations? The bishops should have made someone available to talk to the press after releasing the letter. They know after the nun story was out there how the press would spin this. They need to emphasize that they get the fact that the girl scouts do a lot of good. They just still have some concerns. Would the press have understood that? Maybe. Maybe not. It was worth a shot. Just giving them the letter with a “No comment” was sure to end in a disaster.

  • Matt

    Man – I’m wondering what world the AP is reporting from this time. I’ve never heard of the Girl Scouts being a “lightening rod” for anything. I googled, and apparently some conservatives in the midwest had set up another program for young girls that might be a rival and so they said their group was better, but that’s it. I’d like to agree with Randy that there could have been a better response than “no comment”, but when you already know that no limits of honesty or accuracy are going to apply, any response is just more fuel, and I don’t see what purpose that really serves.

  • northcoast

    “Later, there’s this reference to the Boy Scouts of America (with no response from the Boy Scouts): Even in the face of criticism, the Boys Scouts stand by their policy of excluding atheists and barring gays from leadership roles. The Girl Scouts have no such policies.”

    First, I’m over my head when you are talking about journalism, but I can’t see that a quote from the BSA would add anything to the AP article about Girl Scouts. Second, the AP sentence is kind of a non sequitor in context because the Girl Scouts are accused of adopting liberal standards while the Boy Scouts are criticized for failing to adopt liberal standards. This time the AP got it right about gay leaders.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    We’ve spiked several comments that focus on the issue and not on journalism and media issues.

    Second, the AP sentence is kind of a non sequitor in context because the Girl Scouts are accused of adopting liberal standards while the Boy Scouts are criticized for failing to adopt liberal standards.

    The Boy Scouts are criticized. In the context of this story, the Boy Scouts are backward and discriminatory, while the Girl Scouts have been inclusive. In an unbiased story, the Boy Scouts would be given the opportunity to explain their position and policies in their own words.

  • Jay

    Bobby,

    Your last two sentences capture it all. Back when there were journalism reviews that cared about bias (rather than being captured by the same MSM groupthink that produces such bias), this would have been an obvious story for CJR.

    Jay