About GetReligion: In a few words or less

For years, journalists took one of two different approaches when labeling the two sides in America’s legal wars over abortion.

On one side, there where the people who — in keeping with the long-standing tradition that movements are allowed to name themselves — called the people who opposed abortion the “pro-life” camp and those in favor of legalized abortion the “pro-choice” camp. The quotation marks, in this case, meant that these were labels used by the activists themselves.

Meanwhile, most journalists went with another set of labels, calling those who opposed abortion the “anti-abortion” camp, while calling those who backed legalized abortion, yes, the “pro-choice” camp. In other words, the cultural left was granted its label of choice, while the cultural right was stuck with a label that it hated, a label that its leaders argued missed the larger point of their cause.

Also, what was the object of the word “choice” in that “pro-choice” mantra? Why state one side of the argument in terms of a positive choice and the competing side in strictly negative terms? Americans tend to favor the positive statements of causes, not the negative. Also, opponents of abortion, with good cause, wondered if this linguistic slight to the cultural right was linked to all of those survey numbers showing that 80 to 90 percent of America’s journalists, especially in elite newsrooms, backed abortion rights.

During my tenure on the religion-beat in Denver, I had a pivotal conversation with a Rocky Mountain News metro editor on this subject.

I was willing to accept continued use of the “anti-abortion” label for the cultural right, since it was, in the end, accurate in a blunt, literal way. But was it fair, I asked, to keep using that “pro-choice” label for those who backed abortion as a legal option in our society? Why not strive for some kind of literal label that pointed, once again, to the real issue at hand. I suggested the bulky, but accurate, “pro-abortion-rights” label. Today, this is the label used in many newsrooms.

The bottom line, I said, was that his is an issue that has divided our nation almost right down the middle and, thus, it was our responsibility to be as fair and accurate as possible to both sides. If the nation was divided 50-50 or close to it, then it was in our interests to be as balanced as possible.

The editor’s response was blunt: My argument was rooted, she said, in my pro-life bias. One statement hit me so hard that I went back to my desk and wrote it down. The “vehemence” with which I argued for 50-50 coverage, she said, was “evidence of my pro-life bias.” Yes, she actually used the “pro-life” label.

I thought of that exchange the other day when I reader noted, in a highly blunt and personal comment linked to one of the Divine Mrs. MZ’s post about coverage linked to abortion:

It is pretty clear that mollie’s “media criticam” (which she likes to insist is the only point of this blog) is nowhere near objective or fair. These blog post are no less biased than the media articles they are critiquing.

For example, it is clear that mollie is extremely sympathetic to the pro-life position. If this was truly an article only meant to help the media “get religion” and was not political than it should be impossible for one to read what the author’s position is. So, despite mollie’s pretensions, this post is nowhere near apolitical.

Actually, this is a commentary blog and no one who writes for it has ever tried to hide their traditional Christian beliefs when we are looking at mainstream-media coverage of hot-button religious issues in American public life, such as abortion. As I have said many times, and as many of my newsroom colleagues knew through the years, I am a pro-life Democrat and, as a journalist, I always felt much more comfortable applying the pro-life label to Mother Teresa (who I was blessed to interview while in Denver) than to politicians such as, to name one major politico I covered while in Charlotte, U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms. I am sure that was just my bias as an old-fashioned Southern Democrat.

What’s my point? MZ makes no attempt, in her commentary work here, to hide her pro-life convictions. However, she is just as fierce in her defense of old-school, balanced, accurate journalism. Your GetReligionistas are not hiding our views on the big issues. However, the point of this weblog is to fight for the “American model of the press” and we think that, the hotter the religion issue in the news, the more journalists should strive for 50-50 coverage that allows articulate and passionate voices on both (or multiple) sides to be heard.

That is our ultimate bias, in journalistic terms. If you find us advocating coverage that slants to the cultural right, please send us the URL to that post. We will respond.

Here’s why I bring all this up.

Since our move to the Patheos universe, I have been spiking roughly 50 percent of the comments made on my posts (I cannot speak for everyone else), especially when the comments (a) try to pontificate for or against a particular religious point of view or (b) have nothing to say about the journalism issues raised in our posts. I spike just as many comments by loud, press-bashing conservatives as by loud liberals.

Many people simply do not understand what we are trying to do here. Thus, the Patheos elders recently asked us to produce a short, simple “About GetReligion” statement, as opposed to the original “What We Do, Why We Do It” essay published the day we opened for business.

Here is what we came up with:

At GetReligion, we don’t report religion news or debate doctrines. Instead, we critique the good and the bad in mainstream press coverage of religion.

This journalism website — started by Terry Mattingly and Douglas LeBlanc in 2004 — is built on the conviction that mainstream journalists can’t accurately cover real events and trends in the real world without working to understand the role that religion plays in the real lives of real people.

Our commentaries tackle stories about economics, politics, sports, academia, culture, entertainment and other topics often haunted by religious subjects and themes missed by reporters, producers and editors. Thus, the journalists who write here strive to spot what we call “religion ghosts” hidden in mainstream news.

The bottom line: This is a pro-journalism blog.

We will keep trying to do what we do.

Just saying.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • MJBubba

    Y’all have been spiking comments ever since you started. I think the discussions that go off the media rails the quickest are the ones that involve atheists or abortion. I have been guilty of posting a comment about the substance rather than the coverage on more than one occasion, but I very much appreciate the way you monitor the discussion and keep the focus on the media. I especially appreciate media criticism of religious issues since I perceive the mass media to be promoting a universalist Oprah spiritualism that is at odds with all people who believe that actual ultimate spiritual truths can be known. This media influence is bad for our culture in my view.

  • deacon john m. bresnahan

    As one who has been spiked here on occasion for going too far afield , but also as one who wrote a weekly local human interest and history column, I value good editing. The last time I looked, rare is the writer whose work is perfect and rare is the writer whose writing never needs some pruning or elimination.

  • tmatt

    Deacon:

    Spiked quite a bit, actually. What is the challenge of commenting here?

  • Mike

    I think part of the challenge is that while the posts have a journalism point, there is also usually a non-journalism ideological point tossed into many posts that are more provocative and interesting than the basic journalism issue. But commenters are chided for commenting on the political/ ideological points no matter how many ideological hand grenades were tossed out by the bloggers.

    Obviously, the joy of having a blog like this is you get to grind your ideogical axes that have nothing to do with actual journalism, but commenters can sometimes be left confused why they have to stick to journalism when the bloggers are free to stray far beyond the journalism.

    • JC

      I think Mike touched upon the real cause of the difficulty in the first half of his comment. I would imagine that a lot of the web-surfers that wash up on the shores of GetReligion are more captivated by the political content of the posts than the critiques of journalistic form. Probably not much that can be done about that, except ‘keep spiking away!

      On the other hand, the unsubstantiated claims in the second part of Mike’s comment are false, but it’s easy to see how a reader might come to think as much. You see, one of the more commonly made critiques at GR follows the template of, “The journalist is right to think that there’s a story here, but they’ve neglected an angle that would have been important to a large portion of the paper’s readership.” Because the bloggers tend write from a perspective that is commonly being neglected/given short shrift by the major news outlets, they do end up introducing their own perspective in the critique. I suspect that the animus they sometimes encounter arises, on some occasions, from the fact that there are readers who would prefer that the bloggers’ perspective remain neglected — which is to say, who would prefer, at least in this important respect, bad journalism.

      As a reader who’s been following GR for years now (mostly in silence), I say great job and keep up the good work!

    • Meg

      I have to agree with Mike on this one.

  • sari

    My feelings run the same as Mike’s. To use the example cited, Mollie’s blogposts on abortion often stray far afield from the original topic (the MSM being mean to pro-life advocates) and lack the critical impartiality she maintains for other topics. Worse, we readers encounter the same kinds of factual distortion and loaded language frowned upon in articles published by the MSM. Perhaps it is a little unfair to penalize those who comment for rising to the bait under such circumstances.

  • Matt Jamison

    This unusual perspective is why I love GetReligion and visit it daily though I have no particular professional interest in journalism. The saving grace of the site is religious and political diversity of its contributors and regular commenters: those journos who have never met a committed pro-lifer in the newsroom get to know one in Mollie. Don’t change a thing!

    Also, I’m sure that spiking inappropriate comments is a frustrating and time-consuming task, now more than ever. Thanks for doing this work so that the comments of people like Sari and Deacon Bresnahan are not buried.

  • Jettboy

    Considering that the religious and conservative voice is what is most missing from journalism, I say continue spiking. So long as a person like myself can feel comfortable reading and commenting even when disagreeing with the very existance of modern news, then I think its worth the effort. The day I feel Getreligion is no better than the medium they critique then it will lose my loyalty. Whatever that is worth.

  • Julia

    Sometimes commenters, including me, get lured off the journalism issues when really incorrect substantive statements are being discussed in the post itself or in the comments. Since there is no Catholic active contributor right now, it’s particularly hard to resist the impulse to correct off-the-wall statements about Catholic belief and Catholic structure and leaders. Sometimes well-meaning regular commenters don’t recognize they are getting off the journalism track until they have gotten off into the weeds.
    PS I miss the up and down thumbs and the button for setting apart quotations.
    You guys have maintained a very interesting site for a number of years now. The posts and man of the comments. Congratulations.

  • another guest

    Point of contention — I’m pro-life for far more reasons than my desire to restrict killing before birth. I’m also opposed to euthanasia, and to “death by starvation” of those who can’t sustain themselves. I’m even opposed to the death penalty when it involves non-mass murder (that is, the risk to other lives is essentially none). So yes, I resent the “anti-abortion” label.

    If the “pro choice” were actually even half a description of pro-abortion-rights advocates I might accept this label. But they are not favoring my choice — that is, my discretion — over abortion. They’re actually militating against my choice. Do I have a right to my own earnings? Do I have discretion whether or not to fund abortions and the corporations that benefit from them? The point is not choice. The point is widespread abortion. I might hold more than cynicism for this self-proclaimed label if it were accurate. But it’s not.


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