Hey, you put your opinion in my news!

One of the many products offered by Religion News Service is its daily round-up of news items, a chatty summary that is almost always infused with opinion. Here’s an example from earlier this month:

The Texas Freedom Network, a nonprofit civil liberties group, posted on its website last week that it had discovered that six people chosen to review biology textbooks for the state had ties to creationism. That was later amended to four. Still.

Still … what? I mean, I have no idea how the much abused term “creationism” is being defined in this coverage of a biology textbook writing controversy, but I do believe God created the heavens and the earth. Was this RNS item an attack on religious adherents like me? It seemed oddly hostile.

Last month the round-up included this bit:

Yesterday we wrote in this space about how two of our guest commentators — Barry Lynn and G. Welton Gaddy — did not mince words when decrying the assertion that there is a war against Christians in the military. But the Rev. Tom Ehrich has set the bar for higher  today — adding a healthy dose of outrage to his candor. His column begins:

It is tragic to watch contemptuous right-wingers declaring war on America.

Not that everyone doesn’t want to parse the fine points of distinction between the views of Barry Lynn and C. Welton Gaddy, much less between them and the Rev. Tom Ehrich, but is there room for another perspective in the opposite direction? Or as one observer asked:

Any chance for coverage of views on the other side, on the equal access side?

That’s not the only religion angle in play. I wrote a fairly middle-of-the-road take on evangelism in the military for the Wall Street Journal recently but there are views far to the other side of those featured by RNS.

And then today there was a tweet from RNS that read:

#RowanWilliams tells #Christians in the West who feel persecuted to “grow up.” ‘Bout time someone said it. http://ow.ly/nZo4h

With the caveat that I’d gotten in a bit of a dust-up with the great Alan Jacobs on just this issue this morning (because I sometimes forget, in the absence of coffee, to avoid battles with people far wiser than I could every hope to be), this ” ’bout time” sneering left a bad taste in my mouth.

I wrote: “Wow. Disdain much?”

Ted Olsen of Christianity Today responded “Gotta agree with Mollie. I don’t quite get RNS’s move toward mixing opinion and reporting. Esp. odd post-RNA merger.” And our own Bobby added, “With its snarky daily roundups and tweets, @RNS does seem increasingly willing to voice its opinion. Is this on purpose?”

RNS editor Kevin Eckstrom noted that he meant the tweet to go out on his personal account. We get that. We accidentally tweet from our GetReligion account, too. Of course, the “’bout time” line is also in the RNS round-up itself, which he also authored.

Now, I’m obviously a practitioner of the opinionated analysis. That’s what we do here. But I’m less comfortable with mixing opinion into news pieces. Maybe I’m being too sensitive. Thus, I’m really curious what GetReligion readers think.

Good idea to add some opinion? I mean, we may not have been discussing Rowan Williams’ comments on real persecution if folks hadn’t advanced those comments with a bit of opinion. Is it worth the cost to mainstream news credibility? Or maybe it’s just nice to see some transparency about the biases that come into play when covering Western religious liberty?

Or let’s put this another way, especially since GetReligion has long been known for its strong support of RNS and its work. I’m sure the many talented and impressive journalists at RNS would say that they aim to contain the snarky asides to opinion pieces and in personal statements linked to the edgy world of online commentary. That’s the goal and lots of people in mainstream journalism are trying to walk that line these days.

What’s somewhat confusing for the outsider is that sometimes you have the same people doing news writing and opining in close proximity. So in some places reporters are encouraged to be themselves and let the opinions fly and in other places quite nearby, they are required to uphold the typical journalism norms.

I have one suggestion. I find that I absolutely love, for example, RNS journalist David Gibson’s opinionated takes on religion news when those takes are clearly labeled as such. I’m not saying that I agree with him, just that he has provocative and intriguing analyses that I enjoy reading and reacting to. When those same takes are presented as straight news, as sometimes happens, it can come off as unfair.

Here’s an idea. Perhaps simply labeling what’s opinion and what’s news would help readers respond more appropriately.

One observer suggested another. If serving up snark against conservative religious adherents is good for generating discussion, perhaps some equal opportunity snarking is in order. Hire some folks to roll their eyes at whatever is happening in mainline denominations or among edgy Muslim groups, etc. Strive for a bit of balance.

What do you think?

  • James Gibson

    Not to pick nits, but I’m pretty sure the fellow referred to as “G. Welton Gaddy” is actually C. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance. He was campus minister at my alma mater, Mercer University, many moons ago. Nice guy, but very much to the left on matters religious and political.

    • tmatt

      Nit away. Always glad to fix typos.

  • Julia B

    When you read an actual newspaper there are clearly obvious sections for op-eds and regular news. When you real a paper on-line or even moreso when you google an individual piece, there’s no way to tell what section the piece is from. Perhaps, as you intimated, there should be a label on the individual pieces that travel with it no matter what venue it is habiting.

  • Kevin Spencer

    Some of us remember the evening news on the Big Three networks in the 60′s and 70′s. They’d give pretty hard news, few soundbites, adequate sourcing. But when the anchorman had an opinion? Out came the “COMMENTARY” graphic before the anchor spoke his mind. And by that, it was often a thought-out opinion. Then the graphic went off and news continued

    Not only is this delineation missing from cable news, but now the medium seems to bear little to no differentiation to blogs, even citing them or social media as a source. Somewhere, journalists lost the definition of “opinion” and “fact”. Might be an obvious observation, but I miss the ’70s era news.

  • Jettboy

    When are reporters going to learn they are in the business of words with their news? What they say in private is no different than what they say in public? Imagine a school teacher going around town saying they hated kids and then when confronted saying, “its only my private opinion.” How long will that person have a job? For that matter, even if not saying that how much of an effect is that going to be on how the students are treated?

  • JayCZ

    For the tweeting issue, what’s needed is a separate RNS opinion Twitter account: The NYT, LAT, WSJ all do it that way. This brings back the traditional (newspaper) separation: if it’s on the news page it’s news, and if it’s on the opinion page it’s opinion. (Let’s ignore the creeping growth of “analysis” for now).

  • MollieZHemingway

    I heard from several reporters who didn’t comment publicly here that they think a simple clarification on when something is a news product and when it’s opinion, would go a long way here. Just fyi.


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