Balancing quotes on Amendment 2

I write with some disappointment about the report from the Religion News Service (RNS) on Missouri’s Public Prayer Amendment (Amendment 2).  Entitled “Missouri prayer amendment passes” in the version printed in USA Today, the article is rather thin. It does not provide quotes from the amendment but seeks to summarize its language.

Given the nature of the beast — a wire service article with limited space to tell a story — the absence of direct quotes is not a defect. The defect comes in the author’s choice to frame the story in an unbalanced manner. It reverses the quote ratio — providing more responses from voters who voted “no” even though it was overwhelmingly endorsed.

The reader comes away from this article knowing little more than the Amendment passed. The “why” and “how” questions are not properly addressed.

The article begins:

Voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state’s constitution on Tuesday, despite concerns about the measure’s necessity and legality.

Amendment 2, which supporters said would protect the freedom of religious expression in public schools and other public spaces, received nearly 80 percent of the vote.

The editorial voice of the article is made clear from the start. Amendment 2 is overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate, but was unnecessary. After a quote from the Amendment’s sponsor, the article recounts which religious groups supported and opposed the bill and then offers the views of unnamed experts.

…  Legal experts almost unanimously predict that the amendment will wind up in court.

Critics also argued the amendment is redundant — the U.S. Constitution already protects religious freedom. And some warned that it would spark countless lawsuits and bring unintended consequences.

Who are these experts and critics? One is:

… Greg Grenke, a 22-year-old voter from Columbia who voted against the amendment. He said he’s not against prayer — he just doesn’t think the amendment was necessary.

This is followed by:

Pediatrician Ellen Thomas, 48, said the amendment seemed like propaganda.

“I really just think it’s designed to stir up angry sentiment.” She added, “There’s no infringement on people’s right to pray as it is.”

And then we have:

Kathy Rowland, 55, of Columbia, Mo., said the amendment seemed “well-intentioned,” but unnecessary.

A contrary view, representing the 80 per cent is then offered:

“I was glad to see it,” said Margie Cravens, 87, as she left her Columbia polling place. “And we need prayer now more than ever before.”

The “man in the street” comments may provide color, but they do not answer basic questions. What was the legislative/political journey that led to the vote? Why was the vote so lop-sided? Why did liberal religious groups reject the amendment? Why did other religious groups back it? What do constitutional law professors say?

I would also ask, what was the thinking behind the selection and number of color quotes? Was it appropriate to have three no comments and one yes, when the vote was 80 per cent yes and 20 per cent no? I am not saying that the proportion of quotes should match the vote tally — but I find it odd that the ratio is reversed in this story between the quotes and the vote.

There are wire service religion reporters who consistently do an excellent job in providing solid information and strong quotes in a limited space. I’m afraid that this story is not one of those occasions. My verdict: “Needs work. Could do better.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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  • Julia

    The ascending ages of the person cited is interesting.

    Ages 22, 48 and 55 are “no”.

    Age 87 is the only “yes”.

    hmmm Was the success of the bill due to massive turn-out or fraud in nursing homes?

  • T

    The success was because there was a hotly contested republican primary statewide but nothing much happening in dem primaries.

    The lack of quotes from proponents is because no one would talk about why they supported it. Most who voted yes did not know what they were voting for because of the misleading ballot language.

    A local wire reporter knows more than you outsiders.

  • JoFro

    T – So did the local papers report on what you just typed?

  • northcoast

    Not long ago Bobby Ross, Jr. had a posting about the proposed amendment and the uneven number of quotes from people for and against. The Missouri Catholic bishops had (and still have) a supporting statement on the web; so I can’t imagine that one of them wouldn’t have been good for a quote. There was a quote from the director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, but it didn’t really support the measure and didn’t indicate that the bishops had expressed their support.

  • Martha

    T, if the story had bothered to quote or even link to the amendment, we’d all be a lot wiser.

    I still have no clear idea what this involves, why it was felt to be necessary, and what it does or does not cover – prayer in school before sporting events? (I remember some stories about protests about ‘compulsory’ prayer meetings by coaches before football matches and so forth).

    I can see why the Catholic bishops would support it:

    “It also stated that students could be exempted from classroom activities that violate their religious beliefs.”

    So if parents do not want their children to sit in on school sex education classes because of information the parents deem inappropriate to their age or against the family’s faith, they can’t be forced to attend. As to the rest of it, it seems like somebody will bring a case about separation of church and state over somebody addressing a school assembly or the like.

  • Chris B

    If you wanted to know what was going on in Michigan, would you only speak to people in Ann Arbor? Does Austin provide a good gauge to how Texans think? Why on earth would you only speak to Missouri voters in Columbia? Particularly on a cultural issue? The amendment passed with 82% statewide, and with 67% in Boone County (where Columbia is). And the reporter couldn’t find a single person who voted for it? Seriously?

  • Martha

    Okay, I looked it up online and there are some interesting bits in it; the one that struck me is this (bolded phrases are the proposed amendment to what already is in the state constitution):

    “but this section shall not be construed to expand the rights of prisoners in state or local custody beyond those afforded by the laws of the United States, excuse acts of licentiousness, nor to justify practices inconsistent with the good order, peace or safety of the state, or with the rights of others.”

    So that sounds like, for example, prisoners who claim that using psychotropic substances in religious rituals is part of their beliefs will be denied, and I can see difficulties such as have already been taken in cases about Wiccan, neo-Pagan and other minority religions and faiths. There may be unintended consequences here.

    I do see the difference between the full text of the proposed amendment and what was put on the ballot, so that may also be grounds for challenge.

    I still am not quite sure why this amendment was considered necessary; is the state of play in American public schools really at such a pitch that bringing a Bible to school to read in your lunch break causes ructions? I can see why a principal should be entitled to tell a student particularly zealous about witnessing to others to do it outside of school hours, without invoking either angry parents castigating this as anti-freedom of religion or equally angry secularists demanding expulsion at the very least for such effrontery on the student’s part.

    Is common sense in such short supply in an election year?

  • Chris B

    OK. ONE person.Still.

  • John Penta

    Martha: Common sense is completely absent in an election year.

    However, that said, *most* schools I know of (even in the rather secular Northeast) would only bat an eyelash at a Bible being brought to lunch at school in terms of “Why are you bringing a book to the cafeteria, period”, more than “Why are you bringing a *Bible*?” (Most kids in US schools have 20 minutes, if that, for lunch, which makes a Bible even more anomalous. Unless you skip eating, there’s just not time to read.)

  • sari

    John,
    One can read and eat. Kids study while eating all the time, especially if they save time by bringing lunch from home. Mine did.

    Has anyone seen a point by point comparison between this Amendment and protections afforded by federal law? By failing to interview supporters, we have little sense of what the amendment means to those who voted for it, and little sense of the disconnect between what they think they’re getting (and why it was necessary) and the actual product. Lastly, where are the demographics, pro and con?

  • The Old Bill

    The amendment was backed by Missouri’s four Catholic bishops and the Missouri Baptist Convention. The Episcopal Diocese of Missouri and several non-Christian groups opposed it.

    Today’s tag team match pitches Catholics and Baptists vs. Episcopalians and non-Christians. Why do I find this amusing?

    Legal experts almost unanimously predict that the amendment will wind up in court.

    This is the US. We have more legal experts than lawyers. And anything wind up in court.

    Critics also argued the amendment is redundant — the U.S. Constitution already protects religious freedom.

    The states have their own bills of rights which often mirror the Federal Constitution’s. Below is the link for Texas’. Note that there are provisions for freedom of press, speech, right to keep and bear arms, habeas corpus, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, etc. What would the coverage be if Texas were to purge these in because they were redundant?

    “It opens up a can of worms most people don’t want to open,” said Greg Grenke, a 22-year-old voter from Columbia who voted against the amendment.

    Eighty percent of voters showed up with can openers.

    Critics also argued the amendment is redundant — the U.S. Constitution already protects religious freedom. And some warned that it would spark countless lawsuits and bring unintended consequences.
    “It opens up a can of worms most people don’t want to open,” said Greg Grenke, a 22-year-old voter from Columbia who voted against the amendment. He said he’s not against prayer — he just doesn’t think the amendment was necessary.

  • The Old Bill

    Oops! Pardon my formatting mistake. I hit the submit key too soon by mistake.

    Grafs 3,5 and 7 should be blockquotes. The last graf should be deleted.

    Sorry.

  • sari

    The states have their own bills of rights which often mirror the Federal Constitution’s. Below is the link for Texas’. Note that there are provisions for freedom of press, speech, right to keep and bear arms, habeas corpus, prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, etc. What would the coverage be if Texas were to purge these in because they were redundant?

    Old (but studly) Bill, the biggest question comes down to how and why these laws came into existence and how they will be (or have been) enforced. Texas, in particular, has many laws on the books which are selectively enforced, and has a marked bias against the federal government. Do other states require students to recite a pledge to their state flag every morning?

    I have not yet encountered an article which provides the facts of how and why the Missouri amendment came to be: no examples of actual religious persecution, for instance. The sex-ed thing is disingenuous since most districts already have opt-outs in place. Is it a just-in-case amendment? Will it be applied across the board or will it be used to privilege one group over all others? More than voter quotes are the questions that require answers from those who promulgated the law, from inception to future implementation.

  • Martha

    John, I never, ever, as a schoolgirl, read my own books under the desk under cover of reading my history textbook.

    And I never, ever found out later that the nun teaching us knew all about it but decided to leave me alone since I would be reading proper books and not trashy romance novels, either.
    :-)

  • Martha

    “Today’s tag team match pitches Catholics and Baptists vs. Episcopalians and non-Christians. Why do I find this amusing?”

    I’m saying nothing, Old Bill.

  • John Penta

    Sari: I may be odd, but it was never possible to *focus* enough during lunch to read.:)

    Martha: Tsk tsk. I always sat up front (had to to see the board), so I could never get away with that.:)

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Here’s a more balanced article that more clearly covers the objections: http://www.stltoday.com/lifestyles/faith-and-values/missouri-s-proposed-amendment-on-prayer-gets-mixed-reviews/article_8b188463-9973-532c-92d9-223235cad84a.html

    Skipping out on sex education is one thing. But can children skip learning about evolution in biology? How about a round Earth in geography?

  • Chris Bolinger

    The author is based in Columbia. Here is her pre-election piece for the local NPR affiliate.

  • Chris B

    Ah, she works for the local NPR affiliate, which is owned by the university of Missouri. That explains everything.

  • The Old Bill

    Sari, you’re correct about how many of these laws come into existence. Maybe the amendment is superfluous and just politics. And I don’t dispute that there could be problems. But the argument against it because of redundancy was accepted by the media without mention of existing state constitutions.

    As for numberless and useless laws, I agree, and offer this passage on Roman law from Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization:

    As the emperor’s laws become weaker, the ceremony surrounding them becomes more baroque. In the last days, the Divine One’s edict is written in gold on purple paper, received with covered hands in the fashion of a priest handling sacred vessels, held aloft for adoration by the assembled throng, who prostrate themselves before the law – and then ignore it.”

    Speaking of the Irish, Martha, the nuns didn’t bother me much for reading books under my desk. They were just glad whenever I shut up and sat still.

  • sari

    John, reading is how I survived public school lunches.

    Old Bill, we must be cousins. My teachers, too, were relieved when I read, drew, whatever to shut me up.

    Your comment about the media’s assumptions is correct. My comment was that the media should have pursued a different path when covering the topic. One has a sense that all sides are skirting the real issues, data, motivations, etc.; the facts are too, too wispy. Rather than concentrate on counting quotes, which amounts to taking sides (witness how we’ve ignored huge holes in religious coverage of the Sikhs in Colorado), I prefer to concentrate on factual data, both in the news and here.

  • northcoast

    It might have helped if we had an explanation about the thinking behind the amendment. (Was that reported in the Missouri papers?) It seems to me that we hear from time to time about incidents such as a teacher telling a child that she can’t bring her Bible to the school, but I don’t know if the new law will actually ward off such incidents.

    I also don’t know what is so destructive about the law that it has already been challenged in court.

  • http://www.edenlifemag.com Moyo

    Ultimately I think the media is in the information business. They try to sell you information as they see it. Very rarely do we find media houses that don’t introduce information to the public with a bias.

  • The Old Bill

    Sari,

    I agree completely about counting quotes. The quotes in this story, and so many others, really don’t tell me much about the issues. If we have four vapid comments by one side and four vapid comments by the other, we don’t have balance, we have vapidity. That said, there does seem to be a tendency to choose to have more quotes that support one side.

    (And I bet in school you were surreptitiously reading good literature. I was sneaking books about dinosaurs, knights and the old west.)

  • sari

    Old Bill,
    The chosen quotes skew the article, no question. But would we be having (and by we, I mean everyone who has participated on this topic, including the bloggers who’ve introduced it in this thread and others) this conversation had it slanted the other way by endorsing the amendment?

    (Like you, I read whatever interested me at the time: fine literature, not so fine literature, horse books, and non-fiction, especially science. Not surreptitious, either. More by unspoken agreement. Reading allowed me to learn despite school’s glacial pace.)

  • Parker

    I don’t know why the article didn’t focus on this, but the common understanding is that the Federal Constitution provides the floor of rights, and the State’s Constitutions provide the ceiling. For example, here in Texas, there is a higher threshold of rights for the citizens in relation to search and seizure provided by the Texas Constitution than the Federal Constitution. With that in mind, this wouldn’t exactly be unprecedented.