Want balanced coverage? USA Today shows how it’s done

A few weeks ago a study on news media coverage by the Pew Research Center showed that stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1.

While the findings weren’t a surprise to most people who read news stories I suspect it came as a shock to some of the folks who write them. While almost everyone in the media will admit they are biased, most professional news reporters are bothered by the idea that their bias is undermining their work as journalists. The Pew study thus served as both a wake-up call and a warning that more balance is needed.

Over the next few days, GetReligionistas will be seeing who learned that lesson as we examine the coverage of religion and same-sex marriage in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions. Tmatt got us started by showing how The Baltimore Sun missed an opportunity, but I want to show an example of a news outlet doing it right.

With a title like “Religious leaders divided on gay-marriage decisions” you normally expect (re: Pew) to see one religious leader — most likely a Catholic bishop — state their opposition while two to four representatives — most likely mainline Protestant pastors — express their support. But the feature by USA Today is not only more balanced than usual but also covers a broader range of the religious spectrum.

Here is a list of sources quoted and where they stand:

• Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (opposed)

• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (oppose)

• Rev. J. Bennett Guess of the United Church of Christ (support)

• Jan Uhrbach, a rabbi of a synagogue in the Conservative Branch of American Judaism (support)

• The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (oppose)

• Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church (support)

• Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (oppose)

• Rev. Greg Bullard of Covenant of the Cross [a nondenominational church] (support)

• Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferarra, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality (support)

Four quotes by the opposition and five by those supporting the decision is not exactly parity, but it’s more balance than you are likely to find in most news coverage.

Including a Muslim imam and a representative from a predominantly African-America denomination would have been ideal, but USA Today deserves credit for reaching out to such a diverse group of religious leaders.

Unfortunately, the praise is mixed with one significant criticism. The article makes a basic factual error by claiming,

In the first decision, United States v. Windsor, the court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional.

The court struck down one provision of DOMA – not the entire statute. That’s an important distinction, but one that many journalists failed to make in their reporting.

Overall, though, USA Today deserves praise for providing a model example of how to report on controversial decisions: quote both sides, let them explain their reasoning, and don’t editorialize. If USA Today can get it right, what excuse do other media outlets have for getting it wrong?

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  • FW Ken

    I once wrote an email to a Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter thanking him for the excellent, balanced coverage of the Episcopalian split here. He wrote back that he actually counted quotes from each side to make sure they were equal. He did two articles: in one, the Episcopal Church got the last word, in the other, the withdrawing diocese got the last word. Those seem like good techniques for balance.

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

    *** Four quotes by the opposition and five by those supporting the decision is not exactly parity, but it’s more balance than you are likely to find in most news coverage. ***

    And you also have to look at where the quotes were placed. Were all the supportive quotes up high and then the opposing quotes down low? In this case, the first two quotes were from opponents.

    • Kodos

      I always look at the narrative thread of the story. And in this case, the piece follows the typical narrative: gay marriage is inevitable.

      Yes, opponents are quoted, but the sweet spot of the narrative — the ending — is given to proponents of gay marriage. The final sentence: “…it just means one more step forward in this inevitable journey we’re on toward full equality” is what readers are left with.

      There is also more personal information about some of the proponents (one is married but the marriage isn’t recognized; one has an infant) which paints a more sympathetic picture of them, particularly in comparison to the opponents whom we know nothing about except their job titles.

      Would it have seemed odd if the journalist had written something like: “Same-sex marriage opponent Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he was surprised the justices made such a sweeping ruling in striking down DOMA. ‘This decision demolishes the myth that orthodox Christianity represents some kind of moral majority in this country,’ he said while tossing a football with his teenage son in their front yard.”

      If that tidbit of personal information seems forced, why does it not also seem odd that one gay proponent is said to be putting his infant son in his carseat while talking about gay marriage?

      The subtle spin of the narrative works so well that I almost didn’t notice the journalist’s use of the “marriage equality” term in the second-to-last paragraph.

      So in my opinion, it’s better than most articles on this subject, but that’s not saying much.

      • John Pack Lambert

        With Michael Otterson, the quoted spokes-person for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are not even given his name.
        I think you have identified the big problem I was hinting at. The defeders of man/woman marriage are not allowed to be regular people, only its supporters.
        This is truly a backward narrative when the reality is it is cultural elites that are trying to force this change on the unwilling masses.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    Maybe USA Today is catching on to the fact that many consumers of the media are recognizing the bias in the mainstream media and are starting to refuse to finance through patronizing a product of very low quality.
    Yet most people upset at media liberal bias are not demanding it go in the opposite direction, but become a better product through fairness.
    And between the posting and the comments here it is obvious there are simple mechanics of writing that can create unbiased reporting–like balancing quotes from leaders or supporters of each side of a controversy.

  • John Pack Lambert

    The failure to include any Muslims opposition is a glaring oversight in my view. The exclusion of Muslim voices from the reaction, especially since I could easily find this link http://510report.org/2008/11/08/fremont-muslims-vote-for-prop-8/ about Muslim religious leaders urging Muslims in Fremont, California to vote for it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually the peace strikes me as laziness. The only pro-man/woman marriage people quoted are the top spokes people for their denominations on this issue. While some of those in opposition to the declaration seem to have been hunted out. It is telling that the only non-denominational person quoted is in favor of the ruling, when in fact most non-denominational Christians would find this ruling very troubling.

  • Steve

    Coincidental? On the day before this was posted I had a choice between reading a New York Times and a USA Today at my hotel in Manhattan – or nothing. The Times’ triumphal headlines were so over the top I doubted there was much in there to stimulate deep thought. My experience with USA Today is in agreement with your post. USA Today at least tries to balance its stories. It won.


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