Another one-sided AP same-sex marriage story

Case closed.

The Associated Press has decided, apparently, that stories need to include only side. Stories about same-sex marriage, that is.

Earlier this month, I highlighted a doozy of an AP puff piece out of Salt Lake City on some Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality. Now comes another AP puff piece — this one datelined Harrisburg, Pa.

To be fair to AP, I should point out that the latest story does include two sides — New Jersey same-sex marriage advocates who are on the verge of victory and Pennsylvania same-sex marriage advocates who are having more trouble persuading their state to do the right thing.

Same-sex marriage opponents? Ah ha ha. Get out your magnifying glass and try to find them in this story.

The top of the editorial — er, news story:

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania and New Jersey are on tracks that could lead to the Northeast being the first full region in the country to legalize gay marriage – but the routes are hardly parallel and the horsepower anything but equal.

A flurry of recent court decisions has gay couples in New Jersey, where same-sex marriage has long been debated, hurrying to make wedding plans for when they can legally marry starting Monday – even as a moderate Republican governor with apparent presidential aspirations appeals.

Across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, advocates are pecking away at a 1996 gay marriage ban by introducing bills in the Legislature, defiantly issuing marriage licenses in localities and taking the issue to court – with few people conceding the tactics will work anytime soon in a big state with a socially conservative spine.

Who does AP allow to speak in their own voice — inside quote marks — in this story?

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Pod people: Facts are your friends, journalists

Here at GetReligion, we make no secret of our bias.

That bias: our deep affection for good, old-fashioned journalism.

In two recent posts, I highlighted stories at opposite extremes of that ideal. I discuss those posts with host Todd Wilken on this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast.

In my “When religious liberty clashes with gay rights” post, I praised a Wall Street Journal story on lawsuits over wedding professionals — such as bakers and photographers — refusing to serve same-sex couples. I noted that the Journal quoted sources on both sides of the issue and fairly framed each side’s broad arguments.

That post prompted some interesting discussion from readers (some of it actually related to journalism). Reader cvg commented, in part:

This seemed like a good article. I wouldn’t say the quotes were really well balanced. The SSM quotes reflected personal trauma, while those on the liberty side didn’t. Perhaps it is the language each side naturally uses: one naturally in tune with successful PR, and one naturally out of tune? I suspect there would be stronger balance if quotes reflected how disturbing it can be for a person of faith to be forced to act against deep seated convictions. However, is it the journalist’s job to dig for balance, if those reflected each side don’t naturally portray such balance? Probably not. However, if you’re really after portraying balance, a decent follow up wouldn’t hurt. Too much leading?

My reply:

cvg,

You definitely make some interesting points concerning the balance on the quotes.

One issue at play: Attorneys are being quoted (instead of plaintiffs themselves) in most of these cases, and attorneys speak legalese.

Another issue: the relatively short word count on the story, which doesn’t allow for any source to elaborate a whole lot.

Still, I was pleased that the Journal made an attempt to let each source make its best case, albeit in a short amount of space.

Meanwhile, in my “Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not” post, I raised a number of questions about what I characterized as an Associated Press “puff piece” on Mormons challenging the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Reader Darren Blair commented, in part:

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Mormons softening opposition to homosexuality … or not

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If you enjoy quality journalism, feel free to skip an Associated Press story out today on Mormons challenging their church’s stance on homosexuality.

But if you’re in the mood for a puff piece, wow … AP has produced a doozy!

From start to finish, this quasi-news report engages in unfettered cheerleading. Ready? OK!:

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Wendy and Tom Montgomery went door-to-door in their California neighborhood in 2008 campaigning for the passage of an anti-gay marriage proposition. They were among thousands of faithful Mormons following the direction of a church that spent millions on the cause.

Then they learned last year that their 15-year-old son is gay — a revelation that rocked their belief system.

Now, Wendy Montgomery is leading a growing movement among Mormons to push The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to teach that homosexuality isn’t a sin.

Alas, AP never gets around to providing any concrete data to back up the claim of “a growing movement.”

The story does provide this big chunk of “background,” all without any named sources:

The Utah-based church’s stance on homosexuality has softened considerably since it was one of the leading forces behind California’s Proposition 8. A new website launched this year encourages more compassion toward gays, implores them to stay in the faith and clarifies that church leaders no longer “necessarily advise” gays to marry people of the opposite sex in what used to be a widely practiced Mormon workaround for homosexuality. In May, church leaders backed the Boy Scouts’ policy allowing gays in the ranks. Some gay Mormons who left or were forced out of the church say they are now being welcomed back — even though they remain in same-sex relationships.

Who says the church’s stance has “softened considerably?” The story doesn’t say.

Who are the gay Mormons welcomed back and allowed to remain in same-sex relationships? AP doesn’t bother to quote any of them.

That giant paragraph is followed by this transition:

It may seem like negligible progress to outsiders, but Mormon scholars say 2013 has been a landmark year for the religion on gay and lesbian issues.

How’s that for editorializing? (I’ll give it an A-plus.)

Throughout the story, AP presents the Montgomerys’ version of events as the gospel truth, such as:

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When religious liberty clashes with gay rights

This was the headline on a Wall Street Journal story this week:

Some Businesses Balk at Gay Weddings

And the subhead:

Photographers, Bakers Face Legal Challenges After Rejecting Jobs on Religious Grounds

At this point, the Journal arrives at a critical juncture: the lede.

The opening sentences will give a pretty clear idea where this story is headed: Will it be a sympathetic portrayal of gay couples denied basic civil rights? Or will it be a compassionate accounting of businesspeople forced to compromise sincerely held religious beliefs?

Let’s find out:

As more states permit gay couples to marry or form civil unions, wedding professionals in at least six states have run headlong into state antidiscrimination laws after refusing for religious reasons to bake cakes, arrange flowers or perform other services for same-sex couples.

The issue gained attention in August, when the New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that an Albuquerque photography business violated state antidiscrimination laws after its owners declined to snap photos of a lesbian couple’s commitment ceremony.

Similar cases are pending in Colorado, Illinois, New York, Oregon and Washington, and some experts think the underlying legal question — whether free-speech and religious rights should allow exceptions to state antidiscrimination laws — could ultimately wind its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What do you think? It appears to me that the Journal decided to play the story down the middle — to report the facts and let readers draw their own conclusions. In this age of advocacy, that’s somewhat surprising, but it’s good journalism, right?

Keep reading, and the story immediately quotes national advocates on both sides of the issue — fairly framing each side’s broad arguments.

Then the story turns to specifics of the individual state cases, in each instance allowing the plaintiffs and defendants equal opportunity to comment. For example:

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Ghost in that NYTimes Justice Kennedy hagiography

It’s time for a quick dip into my unusually thick GetReligion folder of guilt, that place where I stash stories that I know deserve a bite of criticism, but more pressing matters (think Syria) keep pushing them back in the cyber-queue.

The other day, The New York Times ran what was essentially a work of hagiography in praise of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. There is not a single surprising word in this story, not a random thought that would upset the loyal community of Times readers who view it as holy writ and would be quick to challenge any violations of orthodoxy.

Also, I realize that — hello former editor and now columnist Bill Keller — as a tolerant, urban, intelligent source of information, there is no need for the Times team to provide any balancing or challenging information in this work of advocacy journalism.

Nevertheless, I do have a question about an interesting piece of information (yes, a religion ghost) that is missing in this report. We’re talking about basic information, here, not opposing points of view.

Now, note that — right up top — the key to the story is that gay rights leaders have been surprised by the strength of the justice’s convictions on this issue. In fact, they had reasons to believe he would not support their cause. Thus the headline: “Surprising Friend of Gay Rights in a High Place.” Here is the lede and then a crucial chunk of background material:

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sang “Give ’Em Hope” for a revered and in some ways surprising guest who shared a California stage with them last month: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

And later:

The praise now being showered on Justice Kennedy by gay rights advocates — and the deep disappointment of conservatives — would have been hard to imagine when President Ronald Reagan nominated him to the Supreme Court in 1987. Gay rights groups were more than a little wary then. On the federal appeals court in California, where Justice Kennedy had served for 13 years, he heard five cases concerning gay rights. He voted against the gay rights claim every time.

“I have to say that Kennedy seems rather obtuse on important gay issues and must be counted as a likely vote against us on most matters likely to come before the Supreme Court,” Arthur S. Leonard, an authority on gay rights at New York Law School, wrote in The New York Native, a newspaper that focused on gay issues.

The justice’s trajectory since then has been a product of overlapping factors, associates and observers say. His Supreme Court jurisprudence is characterized by an expansive commitment to individual liberty. He believes that American courts should consider international norms, and foreign courts have expanded gay rights. His politics, reflecting his background as a Sacramento lawyer and lobbyist, tend toward fiscal conservatism and moderate social views. And he has long had gay friends.

Yes, Kennedy is a Republican, the story notes, but he is a California Republican. Good point, that. Culture and context are important.

However, there is an interesting “C” word missing in this piece, a word that probably had something to do with the original decision by Reagan & Co. to put Kennedy on the high court.

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Guess which sin makes church discipline newsworthy?

Every week, in churches around the world, Christians engage in a peculiar practice in which they confront and correct fellow believers on a range of issues, which are often lumped into a general category called “sins.” The process for this practice was first outlined by a popular religious leader named Jesus and recorded in a book known as the Gospel of Matthew:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

In modern times, being treated like an IRS Agent could be considered cruel and unusual punishment, so if the person remains unrepentant the most extreme thing that can happen is their formal removal from church membership. If they do repent, though, then the church is commanded to comfort, forgive, and reaffirm their love for the person (2 Cor. 2:5-8).

The name for this practice is “church discipline.” A journalist – even one on the Godbeat – could go their whole career and not be aware that church discipline happens in the churches they report on. The matters are usually handled quietly and within the confines of the congregation. But a case of church discipline involving a family in Tennessee has received quite a bit of attention, with two stories and an op-ed in the local paper, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and a feature on CNN’s Belief Blog.

So what sin could make a case of church discipline newsworthy>

Oh, I think you know which one it’s going to be:

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The moral (and news) authority of Desmond Tutu

An article at BBC.com on the launch of a United Nations-backed campaign to promote gay rights in South Africa is a perfect example of the kinds of difficulties that mainstream journalists face when reporting on world figures who have left the public eye.

The name and the work of retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu is known to most educated newspaper readers — but is a reputation built 25 years ago in the anti-apartheid struggle transferable to the modern debate on gay rights? Why should reporters automatically assume that the words of Tutu are major news?

Like Cher, Desmond Tutu has been on a never ending farewell tour. The ebullient archbishop will announce he is withdrawing from public life and then pop up again in conjunction with another cause or campaign. On 26 July the BBC ran a story under the catchy headline “Archbishop Tutu ‘would not worship a homophobic God.’” The article begins:

South Africa’s Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu says he will never worship a “homophobic God” and will rather go to hell. The retired archbishop was speaking at the launch of a UN-backed campaign in South Africa to promote gay rights. Despite same-sex relationships being legal in South Africa, it had some of the worst cases of homophobic violence, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay said.

Archbishop Tutu, 81, is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights. He retired as Archbishop of Cape Town in 1996, but has remained the moral conscience of the nation, correspondents say.

While it is tempting to focus on the first line of the story in this post, to do so would breach the parameters of this blog by discussing a religious and cultural issue, not journalism. Thus, my focus is on the last line of the paragraph, the “moral conscience of the nation” line.

Should the BBC be making this claim, or is this editorial advocacy? Is the Corporation making a value judgment that equates a struggle over race and politics with a struggle over sex and politics?

Tutu’s role in the transformation of the South African state is part of the historical record, and he is rightly honored for his work. Yet he is not universally beloved. The pull quotes from a story reporting on comments made during a campaign rally this week by Zimbabwean strongman Robert Mugabe were unkind — and not unexpected.

“Never, never, never will we support homosexuality in Zimbabwe,” Mr Mugabe said. “Archbishop Tutu said it is nice to be gay, yet he has a wife, he should have begun by getting himself a man for a woman.

“When you are a bishop and cannot interpret the Bible, you should resign and give it to those who can. We will not compromise our tradition and tolerate homosexuality.”

For many years Mugabe has played upon the religio-cultural disapprobation of homosexuality in Zimbabwe for political gain. It may be an act — a way of demonizing or scapegoating an unfavored minority to distract the people from the woes of the country. Sources in Zimbabwe, however, tell me that this is not feigned anger — he means what he says.

Being the object of Mugabe’s invective, however, is a badge of honor and would tend to boost Desmond Tutu’s credentials. Yet within the archbishop’s church his post-apartheid actions have made him yesterday’s man.

In 1998 I attended a meeting of the Anglican bishops of Africa held on the margins of the Lambeth Conference. What played out at this dinner was a contest for the unofficial leadership of Africa — who would be the paramount bishop. The new archbishop of Cape Town, a protege of Tutu — who had retired by this point — had his following. But the mantle of authority passed from South Africa to Nigeria. No votes were taken, nothing official occurred but at that dinner the Anglican churches of Africa moved on from apartheid. The culture wars and homosexuality took center stage.

One thing I took away from these encounters with African bishops was their visceral dislike of breaking ranks and of voicing public criticism of their own. As an American clergyman, I was used to one style of church warfare — Smite the Amalekites Oh Lord, smite them hip and thigh — not the African softly softly approach.

Thus when I saw this denunciation of Tutu by the Archbishop of Ghana following the publication of the BBC piece printed above, I was taken aback by its vehemence.

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Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences

When I was 12-years-old I developed an unhealthy addiction to Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Perhaps due to my own lack of imagination, I became hooked on the books where an author would frame a story in which I was the hero. (In case you’re too old or too young to remember this Gen-X genre favorite: each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character’s actions and the plot’s outcome.) Although each book could have up to forty possible endings — some were “good” (e.g., I save the day) and some “bad” (e.g., I die an ignoble death) — the only endings I considered to be “real” were the ones that aligned with what I’d call my “narrative preference” (i.e., I’m a hero).

Now that I’m all grown up, my taste in books have changed, but my bias toward my narrative preferences remains firmly intact. As an editor at a small town newspaper, I found myself framing stories that fit the preferred narrative I had about my local area. Crime stories were treated as deviations from the norm, while heroic actions were presented as every day occurrences among noble citizens. That more people were likely to be mugged than saved from drowning was a fact I never let impose on my preferred “reality.”

Narrative preference is one of the common biases of journalists – and one of the most difficult for us to recognize. When we are accused of being “politically biased” we often scoff and point to our nonpartisan treatment of the issues. But that often misses the point, for it is not the politics that we are being criticized for, but for having narrative preference that differs from our critics.

Take, for example, a recent incident in Seattle, Washington in which two street preachers are assaulted at a gay pride rally. Here is the report by local ABC affiliate, KOMO 4.

If you haven’t heard about this story, it’s because it did not make the national news. But should it have? Normally, I would say that is was just a local crime story. But Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, raises an interesting question:

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