The stories we critique here at GetReligion usually fall into one of two categories. First we have the good stories: well-written pieces that are fair, balanced, properly sourced and complement the outlets they represent. The second category is comprised of the opposite kind of story, the poorly written ones. These pieces have problems such as ghosts, bias, unexplored angles, poor attribution, inadequate sourcing, vague terminology, etc. The possibilities are endless.
Which would you think would be the more difficult posts for your GetReligionistas to write? If you said the well-written ones, you get a cookie. Or a sugar-free lollipop, since that’s more politically correct.
The well-written stories take much more time and thought and energy and work (at least for this girl) to post about for the very reasons they take longer to write. When a journalist does the job correctly, the story is a veritable treasure chest of information. It features colorful writing and multiple angles. Sources are plentiful, selected thoughtfully and allowed to speak without the journalist inferring or labeling or categorizing for them. When I encounter a good story, I read it multiple times — each time I flesh out a new detail or appreciate a particular pattern of thought. Writing about these gems is an extension of reading them. (And then I have to take a timeout to Google the author, if I don’t recognize the byline. Just to give the writer a virtual high-five.)
Todd Wilken and I discussed the contrasts between good stories and incomplete ones on this week’s edition of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. In particular, we looked at my part of a three-post journalistic train wreck from The Dallas Morning News. Three stories about two elderly gay men and one maverick Methodist minister preparing to marry them — and zero quotes from anyone affiliated with the United Methodist Church who might speak to the denomination’s official stance on gay marriage. I feel like I know this couple quite well, as do I all their friends and supporters, after the trilogy. What we don’t know, as Todd astutely pointed out, is why no one bothered to walk inside one of the many, many Methodist churches that line the streets of Dallas and interview someone who felt differently about gay marriage than the journalist, the couple, the rogue minister and those who know and love them.
I took flak from one profane commenter on this forum and via my inbox about my post, and one fellow Ross/GetReligionista Bobby wrote, for maligning the couple. I was told I made light of the hardships and discrimination they faced for decades before a federal judge struck down Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage. This commenter attacked my character and accused me of hatred.
I don’t hate anyone, and I said nothing untoward about any individual in the story. I railed against the tone of the story, the slant, the bias and the lack of balanced sourcing. Can anyone read these stories and label them anything but advocacy journalism? Can you deny that the United Methodist Church was intentionally left out of a series of stories on a hot-button topic? I don’t think you can.
Thankfully, Todd and I also talked about this story’s foil — another hot-button topic story on evangelism in the Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention and gun giveaways that was a credit to our craft. Talk about going the extra mile: This reporter from the Louisville Courier-Journal found victims of gun violence in the same community and quoted them. We heard from both sides about the event itself and from others representing different positions on the subject and the history of these type programs. No cliches, no tired characterizations, just a straightforward story that lets the reader absorb good information from several reliable sources and draw their own conclusion. Well played, Courier-Journal, well played.
I know which category I would hope to see my byline associated with if I were still writing religion news. I can only hope journalists and news organizations that think they can sway public opinion by presenting only one side to a very two-sided issue will have some sort of awakening and realize readers aren’t going to be told how to feel or what to think based on their biases.