Pod People: Toward a more consistent scare-quote policy

In this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, host Todd Wilken and I looked over a couple of stories I analyzed this week dealing with religion in the public square.

Mark Silk over at Religion News Service took up my request for an explanation of why some media outlets use scare quotes around the terms “religious liberty” or “religious freedom,” a journalistic tic some opponents of the HHS mandate have been finding a troublesome indicator of whether or not they’re receiving fair coverage of their arguments:

There is a fairly vigorous debate going on at the moment about whether religious liberty is really under attack by the government and whether those who say they are defending it are really motivated by concern about religious liberty–as opposed to, perhaps, desire to defeat President Obama in November.

Among the reasons Wikipedia gives for using scare quotes is “to alert the reader that the word or phrase…should be understood to include caveats to the conventional meaning.” In this case, the caveat is that the National Religious Freedom Conference might not be exactly what it seems to be. Covering the conference for NCR on his blog, Michael Sean Winters–who really does consider religious liberty (in the Roman Catholic sense) to be under attack–conveyed just such a suspicion: “What depresses me about such events as this is that it is hard to miss the partisan agenda at work, even if the cause is a good one.”

So the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the “defenders” may actually be up to something else. Get the philosophy?

Silk is very focused on the idea that advocates of religious liberty aren’t really upset about an infringement against religious liberty but that what we’re seeing is “simply anti-Obama prejudice” as one of the people he’s favorably quoted pooh-poohing their concerns has said.

You might read Silk’s last paragraph again. I’m not entirely sure what to say other than that it’s surprising that advocates of religious liberty think they are dealing with a media that is somewhat hostile to them, eh? I mean, I suppose it makes it easier to justify weak coverage of a huge human rights issue if you assume the worst and most partisan motivations of those with whom you disagree (and only them, not the other side of the issue, mind you), but I’m not entirely sure it’s a great journalistic strategy.

In the comment section, Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom supports Silk and explains further:

Mark makes a good point here. And I’m troubled by Mollie’s not-so-subtle implications. Mollie’s implying that we’re using scare quotes as a way of signaling our disagreement with the religious liberty cause. Not so.

We put “religious liberty” in not-scary quotes simply to signal to the reader that this is not a neutral term. As Mark pointed out, there’s vast disagreement about whether religious liberty or religious freedom is, in fact, under attack. Mollie may think so, and the Catholic bishops may think so, but that’s not enough. There are countless others on the other side who see this as a fight over contraception, or government mandates, or health care, or whatever else you want to call it.

If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded, because it would signal to the other side that we, too, share the idea that this is a fight over religious liberty. It’s not that we agree or disagree; it simply says that we’re not picking sides on this one.

So, Mollie, no, there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.

And that explains why media outlets use so many quotes when covering hot-button social issues with deep divisions over the terms of the debate, right?

Or as a commenter to a previous thread on scare quotes put it in response to a different reporter defending some use of scare quotes:

Jeffrey, it occurs to me that if you are being consistent in your defense of using quotation marks in this way and in your defense of the “abortion rights” language now in widespread use, you should be advocating that the word “rights” be put in quotation marks. After all, key to the abortion debate is the question of whether such rights exist at all. It’s a controverted use of the word “rights.”

Same thing with the marriage debate. Proponents of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously believe there is such a thing as same-sex marriage, while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility, an oxymoron, i.e. that the definition of marriage not only should not be changed in this way but objectively cannot be changed in this way, that attempts to marry two people of the same sex amount to pretending but not effecting such a thing. So there again, the quotation style that was (I gather) used by the Washington Times, of putting the word “marriage” in quotation marks when referring to the controverted usage, would be a good, neutral way for a reporter to signify to readers that there is controversy over the usage. Right?

You can read through this previous thread for the discussion of how a consistent scare quote policy would affect coverage of abortion. But as for the marriage issue, obviously there is huge debate over whether marriage can include same-sex couples (proponents of traditional marriage laws say that the term “same-sex marriage” is akin to saying “square circle” or some such thing). While the mainstream media is becoming more honest about its advocacy role in promoting changing marriage law, voters in the states that have had an opportunity to clarify the meaning and definition of marriage have supported a definition that limits it to heterosexual unions. Huge debate. Yet we don’t seem to see many examples of quotes around the terms, do we? Do we see any examples of that?

So is this really RNS’ standard? If scare quotes are to be used any time a term is a matter of serious public debate (and I’m not convinced at this point there is serious debate over whether the lawsuits and arguments of those opposed to the HHS mandate concern religious liberty), then what that means is that we should be seeing these quotes all over the place for terms that are under debate.

Do we not see the quotes around abortion “rights” and same-sex “marriage” because the media sense that they would be prejudicial? (For my part, I’d argue that they’d be right that it’s prejudicial, but, then again, I’m not defending the use of scare quotes for religious liberty issues.) Is there a good argument for scare-quoting religious freedom but not same-sex marriage and abortion rights?

Are we seeing inconsistencies in media coverage of certain causes? Does this bolster my argument that the use of scare quotes has a large downside and not much, if any, benefit? What do you think?

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  • Julia

    If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded

    Why not say something like “Activists say they are gathering to plot defense of religious liberty”?

    And for their opponents – “Activists say the HHS kerfuffle is about access to contraception.”

  • John M.


    Did you intend to scare quote “Crossroads” in your first sentence?

    Sorry, sorry.

    And for the record, I think you’re right on. I think many same-sex “marriage” opponents don’t agree that such a thing exists. My father, for one, compares it to a legislative attempt years ago in the Midwest (possibly apocryphal, not sure) to define pi as 22/7. Changing the law doesn’t make it so. The lack of scare quoting in these cases is very telling.

    Personally, I think you should randomly pick “terms” and scare quote them “in” your GetReligion “posts” going “forward.”


  • Richard Mounts

    I’ve sometimes wondered if the quotation marks were being used in place of italics (in the sese of Strunk & White’s recommened usage of italics.) But I usually couldn’t see them working that way. Like like you, Mollie, it seems to me that the use of quotation marks around certain words/phrases in articles about controversies with a religious component are meant to be pejorative.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, you ask good questions to which I don’t have a good answer. But to try to approach that answer, I think it’s helpful to have more examples.

    For example consider these additional church-state religious issues: Santeria and regulations against sacrificing chickens, members of the neo-American Church and laws against drugs and Muslims, laws that women must uncover their face to get driver’s licenses and members of FLDS or some Muslims attacking laws against polygamy. Or even Amish buggy laws might be an issue here.

    Then we have situations where one religious group is attacking another religious group’s rights causing their to be a situation of which religious group’s rights will dominate.

    All of these and more could use religious liberty terms to frame their dispute with secular society or another religion. Every such dispute is part of an ill defined and shifting boundary about the rights of religious groups versus the rights of secular society.

    Making the situation more complex is that we have two basically different motives at play. The first concerns attacks on specific religious practices such as anti-polygamy laws to state an obvious case. The second concerns society trying to enact something for the benefit of society in general which has the side-effect of restricting a specific religious group.

    So when you have a situation like the later, a religious groups can claim an attack on liberty implying a deliberate attack whereas the other side can claim that there was no deliberate attack but rather that the impact was not deliberate but a side-effect. This is probably the trickiest situation and one which involves the health care law.

    I’m not sure if this is the best approach or not, but I would want to avoid describing any such conflict as a religious liberty or “religious liberty” situation but instead call it a church-state conflict or church-church conflict. When reporting on what a particular group said, I’d use their own terms.

    But I have one final note which I found which makes the whole question even fuzzier.

    When a full professor who works in some field like linguistics or philosophy puts a word or phrase in scare quotes, it’s about the word or phrase: it’s an indication that it may be the wrong one, an expression that ignorant and careless writers elsewhere have used but which really should be eschewed. Professors (well, professors of subjects like linguistics, logic, and philosophy, anyway) write from a standpoint of feeling linguistically fairly secure.

    But when a staff member of lower perceived status uses the same device, the semantics is the same — the quote marks mean that this word or phrase may not be strictly correct — but pragmatically it’s quite likely to indicate a very different situation, one in which the user feels insecure about whether the right word or phrase has been chosen.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Then why is the Obama White House team saying that there are legitimate religious liberty issues at stake — but they believe they have addressed them well.

    Thus, a fight with two sides in which both sides address the issues involve religious liberty.

    Only the press seems to be struggling with that.

  • Julia

    I don’t think many people are saying that there is a malicious direct attack on religious liberty. Although, I do think there are some who do claim that.

    It’s still a 1st Amendment issue in regard to freedom to practice religion regardless of which side one supports, and whether or not it’s a direct attack.

    The National Religious Freedom Conference addressed 1st Amendment issues regarding freedom to practice religion. Even if somebody disagrees with the conference speakers’ view of what the 1st Amendment does or should or shouldn’t protect, the speakers were focusing on the issue of freedoms set forth in the Constitution, not Obama per se.

    The suggestion that the Catholic bishops are out to defeat Obama is a joke. Most bishops are notoriously to the left of most Catholic pew sitters on most issues.

  • Mike O.

    Mollie, I agree with what you said in the podcast about how the people at the religious liberty conference weren’t there as part of some anti-Obama gathering. As you noted, some of the people there traditionally support Democrats (although obviously are not pleased by this action by this Democratic administration).

    But to me, the reason why I think the scare quotes are warranted is the scope of the term religious liberty itself. You gave two examples of terms that in the same manner could get scare quotes but don’t: abortion rights and same-sex marriage. If a person says they are fighting for “abortion rights”, another might not feel they are rights but it’s clear what the first person’s agenda is. A person may feel “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms, but it clearly encompasses a certain viewpoint even to those against it. (As an aside, the idea that marriage has been eternally static and this would redefine marriage is quite the cop-out. There have been many great changes to marriage in man’s long history).

    In short, those two terms when used are the sum total of the position being advocated. For the HHS issue if the people involved said they were advocating religious employment autonomy, then it states clearly what they want, even for those who disagree with them. No scare quotes needed. Religious liberty is a much broader term. To say you are fighting for religious liberty, you must truly fight for all that entails. And to be frank, the organizations fighting this mandate have been a mixed bag at best with regards to religious liberty as a whole. The scare quotes were necessary.

  • Daniel

    “Fundamentalist” should always be in scare quotes.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    If scare quotes are used to signal that the term may not be really what the activism is about, but rather as a cloak or packaging of political partisanship, then all the more should “abortion rights” and “same-sex marriage” and “stopping the war on women” be in scare quotes, too. Even if advocates of these things have an honest goal in mind pertinent to the terms, it is a farce to say that these issues are not also tactics of political partisanship. It is also myopic and a little paranoid to me that opposition to liberal agenda really means whole-cloth support of conservative agenda items. I can be against Obamacare without thereby being a complete Republican tool — but why are abortion activists, e.g., not also simply Democrat tools?

    If scare quotes are for identifying possible partisans cloaking their activities as a rights issue, then let’s be consistent about it. And I am not declaring any position on or judgment of any of the following issues, I’m just saying that if the Catholic Church is “really” just out to defeat Obama and using the HHS mandate as an opportunistic ploy, then it is noncontroversial to claim that supporters of these issues are “really” helping Obama to win in November, and to signal that through scare quotes. Healthcare “reform,” immigration “reform,” abortion “rights,” same-sex “marriage,” “right to die,” “climate change,” “green technology,” and a whole bunch more all deserve scare quotes.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think it’s fine if this is RNS’ actual policy, even if I disagree with it. I just look forward to seeing that policy rolled out consistently to other stories.

  • Martha

    “If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded”

    And the use of the word “plot” to describe what they were doing isn’t loaded? How about using “plan” instead? Would the RNS write a headline about Planned Parenthood “plotting” to achieve some goal or overcome some opposition?

    “It’s not that we agree or disagree; it simply says that we’re not picking sides on this one. …That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.”

    Let’s have a look at some of the headlines from the RNS site as of today:

    “U.S. nuns rip Vatican for ‘unsubstantiated accusations’”

    “Technology shifts the meaning of ‘death us do part’ in funeral rituals.”

    Direct quotation, so appropriately placed within quotation marks. No quibbling there.

    “‘Old Catholics’ embrace new movements”

    The phrase is an abbreviation of the proper names of various churches and groupings and is a popular term to refer to a sub-set of Catholic churches that broke away during the 18th and 19th centuries, so putting it in quotation marks is acceptable as denoting a shorthand term.

    “Black preachers divided on same-sex marriage, not Obama”

    “Federal appeals court rules against gay marriage ban”

    Hmm – neither “same-sex marriage” or “gay marriage” is in quotation marks. Does this signal to the other side (whichever side is the other) that this is “our” term for RNS or that they have picked a side on this one?

    I have to say that this looks like inconsistent usage. “Religious liberty” is put in quotation marks because there is disagreement as to what is at stake here and RNS does not want to appear to be picking sides, yet “same-sex” or “gay” marriage does not get the same treatment.

  • Martha

    Speaking of inconsistency!

    April 12th headlines from the RNS website:

    Catholic bishops issue rallying cry for ‘religious freedom’

    Muslim opposition grows to religious freedom nominee

    Stories by two different reporters, but those headlines are as onscreen, quotation marks (or lack of same) and all.

    So the RNS might not be sure what “religious freedom” means when those sneaky, plotting, anti-Obama, Republican-supporting, culture-war Catholic bishops use it, but they do know what it stands for otherwise? That second story involves the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, so obviously there is a body out there which can tell if a topic does or does not fall within the purview of religious freedom or not.

    Or perhaps the RNS should start referring to it as the U.S. Commission on International “Religious Freedom” because, as Mr. Eckstrom explained, “…whether religious liberty or religious freedom is, in fact, under attack. Mollie may think so, and the Catholic bishops may think so, but that’s not enough”.

    After all, just because some group in the U.S. may think that “religious freedom” is under attack in Saudi Arabia or China, that is not enough to warrant the lack of quotation marks.

  • Julia

    The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom held hearings on Capital Hill this past spring. I saw some of the speakers on C-CPAN. The commission is connected to our legislature in some manner.

    However, all the horror stories were of problems overseas – including the difficulties of the Copts in Egypt. I don’t remember any testimony about the state of religious freedom in the US. Does that imply that it’s only furriners who really attack religious freedoms?

  • Mark C.

    I mean, I suppose it makes it easier to justify weak coverage of a huge human rights issue if you assume the worst and most partisan motivations of those with whom you disagree (and only them, not the other side of the issue, mind you), but I’m not entirely sure it’s a great journalistic strategy.

    The implication seems to be that there is a “huge human rights issue” on only the one side, the one frequently claimed here to be weakly or inaccurately covered. One can easily say, an many have in fact suggested that there is, to use the language above, a “huge human rights issue” that’s also involved with the arguments of the side holding that certain religiously affiliated employers shouldn’t be exempt from general requirements for all employers. How does the comment quoted above not merely repeats the same thing you’ve been criticizing various media reports for, only from the opposite direction?