Instructing v. reporting on gay clergy from The Times

What’s the difference between advocacy journalism and classical, liberal, some would say “objective” journalism?

Advocacy journalism tells you what you should think about a news story while old-school liberal journalism sets out the facts of the story and lets you make up your own mind. The first method produces copy that fits a pre-determined template. The second is rooted in professional standards in which professionals strive for accuracy, balance, fairness, etc.

A comparison of the coverage by The Times and The Scotsman of this week’s vote by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to allow gay clergy succinctly illustrates the assumptions and agenda of these two schools. While both articles give the same essential fact pattern, The Times tells you what you should think about the vote, while The Scotsman lays out the facts and gives voice to the participants — letting you decide.

The story entitled “Desire for church unity opens way for gay clergy” on the front page of the Scottish edition of The Times begins:

An historic proposal has been passed by the highest court of the Church of Scotland paving the way for the ordination of gay ministers.

Commissioners at the General Assembly in Edinburgh voted by 369 to 189 to approve what has become known as a “mixed economy” in the church, enabling individual congregations to appoint a minister who is in a civil partnership, and opt out of traditional church teaching which is opposed to same-sex relationships. The vote, the fourth in the last six years, showed a widening gap between hard-line traditionalists opposed to same-sex relationships, and the more tolerant body of the kirk. The Rt. Rev. John Chalmers, the moderator, said the trend showed a growing desire for unity.

(As an aside the members of the General Assembly are called commissioners — and the General Assembly is the highest governing body or court of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland).

The Times starts off the story with the facts of the vote and then moves to paragraph after paragraph of explanation as to why the outcome of the vote was, to use a technical journalism term, a “good thing.” The article presents the moderator’s argument as to why unity is necessary, followed by assertions that threats of conservative sessions over gay ministers have not been credible so far — plus a warning that if the Kirk does not permit gay ministers it could be sued for discrimination.

The implication is clear — all right thinking people should approve.

Compare the report on the same story from The Scotsman entitled: “Church of Scotland step closer to gay ministers.”

The Scotsman lays out the facts and then proceeds to offer evaluation and commentary from supporters and opponents of the measure. Summaries of the speeches given by supporters and opponents of the measure are offered that give a reader a sense of debate.

But Rev Bryan Kerr, countering the Evangelical motion, said that while he was not “100 per cent comfortable” with the gay clergy plans, he said it offered “the best chance of peace and unity” for the Kirk.

Assembly member Deirdre Murray took a clearer stand, asking “how many more people will flock back into our churches if we agree to this? I can’t see it. I can see more people leaving and I regret it greatly.”

I subscribe to opinion journals to hear specific arguments and points of view. However my preference is for a newspaper to inform me, rather than to instruct me — the approach that in classrooms on this side of the pond, and here at GetReligion, is known as the American model of the press.

The approach taken by The Times will find favor with those predisposed to agree with its worldview. The Scotsman‘s approach can be read with profit by those on both sides, or none, of the issue. The first instructs, or even preaches, while the second approach strives to accurately report information drawn from voices on both sides of key debates. This website continues to defend reporting.

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  • MisterDavid

    Great case study in ‘proper’ journalism vs op-ed.

  • FW Ken

    Hard-line traditionalists vs. tolerance. Who can argue with that. ?

    • Darren Blair

      Never confuse “motion” with “progress”, and never presume that anything labelled “progressive” actually is.

      History has taught that lesson so many times that I’m dismayed so many people – especially in some newsrooms – forget about that.

      After all, it was the “progressives” devoted to the cause of stamping out polygamy that revoked the right of suffrage from women living in Utah.

  • ltrasczak

    “Advocacy journalism tells you what you should think about a news story
    while old-school liberal journalism sets out the facts of the story and
    lets you make up your own mind. The first method produces copy that fits
    a pre-determined template. The second is rooted in professional
    standards in which professionals strive for accuracy, balance, fairness,
    etc.”

    In short, the first one is easy, requires little thought, no talent, no real research, and allows the author to feel good about his or her (totally unearned) moral superiority; while the second is hard, requiring work, research, and actual thought.

    Read more: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/getreligion/#ixzz32hSgDXU9

  • Howard

    When was the Golden Age of “classical, liberal, some would say ‘objective’ journalism”? I strongly suspect that, like most golden ages, it only ever existed as myth.


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