Stenography vs. reporting: ‘Bias’ in the Lone Star State

Just the other night, I was watching an old episode of “The West Wing,” one of my all-time favorite television series.

On this particular episode, a distinguished journalist returns from an important overseas assignment and finds himself stuck — as he sees it — in the White House press corps.

“Why do you think the White House is a bad beat?” Press Secretary C.J. Cregg asks the reporter, named Will.

“I don’t like being a stenographer,” he replies.

I feel his pain. In my Associated Press days, I seldom enjoyed being part of a horde camped outside a crime scene or closed-door meeting with a million of my closest media friends. I much preferred being the lone journalist chasing an untold story in a forgotten place.

I was reminded of the stenography quote when I read a recent Dallas Morning News story on a study examining Bible elective courses offered in public schools (this is an issue I remember covering during my time with The Oklahoman).

The Dallas story, churned out by the newspaper’s Austin bureau, ran under this headline:

Watchdog group finds ‘blatant bias’ in Bible courses at Texas schools

What is bias? Presumably, that means that the courses tell only one side of the story. Ironically, the Morning News story — all of 350 words — manages to do the same.

The top of the report:

AUSTIN — Bible study courses in some Texas high schools include factual errors and “blatant religious bias,” a religious freedom watchdog group charges in a new report, blaming the state’s failure to implement guidelines under a 2007 law.

The Texas Freedom Network, which compiled information on the courses from school districts, concludes that the courses have weak foundations, sectarian bias favoring conservative Protestantism, problematic treatment of Judaism, and “pseudo-scholarship” that “reflects ideological biases such as the belief in an America founded as a Christian nation based on biblical Christian principles.”

“If everybody is allowed to ignore those guidelines, they have no teeth,” said Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund. “And if the state isn’t going to enforce its own guidelines and fund even basic teacher training, maybe we should leave instruction about the Bible to religious congregations who will treat it with the respect it deserves.”

The Morning News fails to elaborate on the factual errors or interview anyone from the school districts dinged by the study.

Like the Dallas newspaper, the Austin American Statesman and The Associated Press both provided relatively one-sided coverage of the study. But the Austin paper at least gave readers some indication of the watchdog group’s leanings, noting that the Texas Freedom Network “monitors activities of the so-called religious right in Texas.” AP, too, offered a little insight, reporting that the group “monitors the State Board of Education from a progressive perspective.”

Interestingly enough, of the coverage I found, only a Fox station in Austin thought to seek another point of view:

Jonathan Saenz with Texas Values, another watch dog group, says proper standards are in place and he’s not surprised by the conclusions made in the review.

“The law is very clear in how you are supposed to teach these things, the Supreme Court has even said its constitutional to do it, but you have to look at this complaint from this left wing group from the lens of the bias that they already bring to this issue, they’re very hostile to people of religious beliefs particularly Christianity so it’s no surprise that they will be hostile to anything related to the Bible in public schools,” Saenz said.

(An aside: Perhaps that TV station could hire someone familiar with the concept of a period to edit that quote. But I digress.)

In a perfect world, some enterprising Texas journalist would step away from the media horde and actually report on Bible elective courses in the state’s public schools. That journalist would examine curriculums, visit with school officials and students, spend a few days in the classroom and interview First Amendment and education experts of varying ideologies.

The goal would be to produce a real news story. As opposed to, say, stenography.

Image 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.

  • FW Ken

    If some school districts are not in the report, what are they doing right? The answer to that might show us if the underlying report is valid, or just an attempt to impose liberal protestantism in place of baptist interpretations. None of the links seem to go back to the report, but maybe I missed it.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Here’s a Dallas Morning News blog post that links to the report.

  • Jerry

    My problem with the story is superficiality. We would be a lot better of with one or two actual examples of what is considered to be the problem. It’s the same thing as allowing people to speak for themselves. Without that, we’re reduced to wanting to hear a voice that says “it’s not a problem” to answer the charge that “it’s a problem” which is basically the old “he said, she said” on a religious plane.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      I think we agree on the superficiality, although we made our points in different ways.

  • sari

    Bobby,
    While I agree that more information, pro and con, should have been included in the report, the results were consistent with what we’ve observed in local (and nationally ranked) public schools. One instructor, for instance, explained that Hindus believe this and Jews believe that, but presented Christian doctrine as fact (*when* Jesus did such and such instead of Christians believe Jesus did… ). With a single, exception, not one was familiar with *any* Jewish denomination’s belief system or how Jews view their own Bible. It’s been documented that Texas schools have an abysmal track record when it comes to teacher qualifications, irrespective of subject. Why would one expect Bible classes to be the exception?

    The TEA, which monitors curricula and teacher training, should have been interviewed in depth. Likewise, descriptions of good and bad programs should have been included. Dr. Chancey is a recognized scholar in his field and brings data to the table. Another expert who has conducted similar studies but reached different conclusions would have been a good interview candidate. Jonathan Saenz (Texas Values) may be a lawyer with a very definite agenda (and who provided no data to support his contention), but he is neither a biblical scholar nor an educator, which makes his opinion just that–an opinion.

    Unlike the Dallas article, the Statesman outlined the basic thrust of the course:

    “The bill provided an outline for districts offering elective Bible courses on the condition that they were religiously neutral and for the purpose of educating students on the Bible’s historical and cultural influence. ”

    Defining what the course was supposed to be gave the reader perspective and some idea as to why introducing bias or teaching Bible as fact in a public setting might be inappropriate.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for your comment, Sari. My big complaint with these kind of stories is that a newspaper gives 300-350 words to a difficult subject, makes blanket generalizations and fails to provide enough context, background and insight to help readers adequately judge the study. My suspicion is that there’s probably some truth (maybe a lot of truth) to this study’s findings, but the media need to do a better job reporting the findings rather than simply passing along an advocacy group’s talking points.

  • FW Ken

    Thanks for the pointer Bobby. I had made it to the tnf site, but missed the link to the report. It does have a mainline protestant bent, but only slightly so. In fact, it includes enough positive instances of appropriate and excellent teaching to make the completely negative headlines (at the DMN blog, for instance) inaccurate. To write the sort of article you envision, the source report would be significant source. In fact, some school districts are fulfilling the legislative mandate to educate kids into the place the Bible has in our culture. I wish someone had pointed out scriptural references in Shakespeare back in the 60s, when I was in school.

    But lest we get to taken with public schools teaching the Bible, I have two words: Ancient Aliens. :-)


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