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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Painful silences in CBS chat on same-sex marriage rulings

OK, follow me carefully here, because it is especially interesting who passed the following item news along.

I read quite a few Catholic blogs, and follow the headlines at New Advent, but I had never heard of the self-proclaimed conservative Catholic blogger/geek who uses “Da Tech Guy” as his cyber-persona. However, this particular blogger recently offered up an interesting analysis of a not-so-shining moment in the long, distinguished career of reporter/anchor Bob Schieffer at CBS News.

More on the content of that post in a moment.

The key, for me, was that I learned about this post by seeing — via Twitter — a post by Deacon Greg Kandra, who runs the excellent “The Deacon’s Bench” blog, which is part of the whole Patheos Catholic blogosphere. The good deacon ran his post under this rather GetReligion-esque headline:

Great Moments in Journalism: Wherein Bob Schieffer Learns a Thing or Two About Gay Marriage

Now that’s a bit snarky, especially as a comment by a Catholic clergyman.

However, at that point it’s crucial to know a little bit about this deacon and his interests in all things journalism. His current online mini-bio hits the basics:

Deacon Greg Kandra is a Roman Catholic deacon serving the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York. A veteran broadcast journalist, Deacon Greg worked for 26 years as a writer and producer for CBS News in both New York and Washington. He now serves as the Multimedia Editor of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA), overseeing editorial content for its acclaimed magazine, ONE, and its award-winning blog, ONE-TO-ONE. For his work in broadcasting, Deacon Greg has been honored with every major award in the industry, including two George Foster Peabody Awards, two Emmy Awards, the Christopher Award and four awards from the Writers Guild of America.

In other words, Kandra knows a thing or two about CBS News and what goes on in elite broadcast journalism organizations. Also, he made it clear, as he passed along the Schieffer item, that he was not trying to bash the journalist. Still, he thinks this particular broadcast offered sharp insights into the mindset of elites in this level of newsroom.

Now, Bob Schieffer is one of the most seasoned journalists still plying the trade — the only CBS News Correspondent to have covered the White House, State Department, Pentagon and Congress — and one of the few broadcasters who can claim deep roots in the world of print. (He was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram back in the day.) He’s a reporter’s reporter, with uncanny instincts, a Rolodex full of amazing sources, and a real talent for writing and interviewing.

I speak here from personal experience: he’s also a very nice guy.

This brings us back to the actual Da Tech Guy commentary, as passed along by the deacon. This is long, but includes transcribed material in italics from the Sunday broadcast:

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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that Poynter.org term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

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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:

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Media: Remember your filibuster? That was awesome.

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The media gushing over Texas filibusterer Sen. Wendy Davis continues in such a way as to make Chris Farley, above, seem restrained. Davis is the woman who has halted, at least for the time being, a bill that would require Texas abortion clinics to have the same standards other ambulatory surgery centers are required to have. It would also prohibit, with some exceptions, the killing of children who had reached five or more months’ gestation. And the bill would also require abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, in case of an emergency.

There are so very many fascinating things to look at, particularly in the context of the tremendous and notorious difficulty the mainstream media has had covering various problems at abortion clinics, including convicted murderer Kermit Gosnell’s abortion “house of horrors,” Texas’ own alleged killer of babies born alive, Douglas Karpen, and clinics around the country.

Let’s go over various media coverage of this religion ghost-haunted, hot-button story. One important thing to keep in mind is that this is not a forum for discussing abortion or doctrinal views on abortion or particular legislation about abortion. You are welcome to have your strongly held opinions on those matters and you are welcome to have those discussions — just not here. We keep discussions focused on media coverage.The goal is to see if the mainstream press can present the views of people on both sides of this debate in an accurate and balanced manner. It’s called journalism.

If you are interested in media coverage, in basic journalism, please join in the discussion.

OK, so first off, the Associated Press’s initial story (or headline), which actually was wrong, framed the debate word-for-word as did the pro-choice activists opposing the bill do.

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Republicans pass new restrictions expected to close almost every abortion clinic in Texas.

This one-sentence off the wire was updated, of course, but the framing remained the same, if the hyperbole was somewhat softened, throughout mainstream media accounts. Almost invariably we got the pro-choice spin on this story as if it were the news. By “requiring tighter medical standards,” as USA Today put it, the bill would have “effectively close[d] most abortion clinics in Texas.”

But wait. Each of these clinics would be free to meet the same standards that all the other ambulatory surgery clinics in the state meet, so such reporting showed not just bias but particularly childish bias. This pro-choice perspective should be included within the story, of course, but it shouldn’t be adopted as the framing for the entire story, the only perspective offered, lest press releases from Planned Parenthood be indistinguishable from stories presented as news.

Moving on to how the media have treated Davis — I found it interesting that a search of the Los Angeles Times shows that the newspaper has already published 11 staff-written stories about her. By comparison, the Times only got around to three staff-written stories about Kermit Gosnell. One of those Davis stories was literally on the front page yesterday. Kermit Gosnell never made the front page of the Los Angeles Times and it took years after his indictment in the murders of seven children and one woman for the paper to even mention him at all, buried deep within the paper.

When North Dakota pro-life senator Margaret Sitte wrote, sponsored and passed various pro-life bills, did the Los Angeles Times cover her? Not even once. Some women who work on bills related to abortion are vastly more important than other women who work on bills related to abortion. As I joked on Twitter, “It’s almost like there’s a pattern with how the media cover abortion. It’s subtle, but if you look hard, you can almost detect something.” (Have your own fun with the Los Angeles Times search function here.)

Or take the Washington Post. You remember that it wasn’t until some high-profile and sustained media criticism shamed them into it that they finally got around to writing about Kermit Gosnell, after years of complaints. Compare that to this story the Post tweeted out to its 1,741,558 follwers:

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Wait, Baltimore’s archbishop is a national voice on WHAT?

As one would imagine, the editorial team that produces the newspaper that lands in my front yard in the liberal environs of greater Baltimore was celebrating a great victory yesterday.

I am, of course, talking abou those U.S. Supreme Court decisions that were consistent with the newspaper’s longstanding and clearly stated editorial stance on all matters linked to gay rights.

Thus, it would have been miraculous to have seen any degree of editorial balance in the large package of coverage published by The Baltimore Sun in the wake of this major victory for the moral, cultural and religious left. I mean, check out the strategic variation in the newspaper’s “Light For All” slogan in the header graphics used with key elements of the NEWS package (as opposed to an opinion weblog) for the day.

Still I think it is fair to pay attention to the material included in the main story that represented the views of traditional Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and countless others who believe that the word “marriage” should not be redefined to include same-gender unions.

In particular, I was interested in how the Sun team would deal with the two primary realities in Maryland debates about sex, marriage and family.

The first is the majority of the state’s African-American Christians who do not back same-sex marriage and, also, continue not to equate race and sexual orientation.

The second is that the city’s archbishop serves as the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ ad hoc committee on religious liberty, a First Amendment issue that — for leaders on one side of these public debates — is directly linked to the future of U.S. laws and policies on marriage and family. In fact, would the story deal with the impact on religious believers and institutions at all?

So, what do we see in the main story (or in the whole package, for that matter)?

Trust me, this will not take a lot of your time.

Here is all of the material in this A1 story that is dedicated to the Maryland defenders of marriage as traditionally defined.

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The New York Times hides abortion editorial on front page

Yesterday after the House of Representatives voted 228 to 196 to limit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, I was surprised to find the following headline at the New York Times:

Democrats Defend Killing of Viable Fetuses to Appease Vocal Base

Only kidding, of course. As Matthew J. Franck of First Things wrote, that’s a New York Times headline we’ll never see. The real headline used exhibits the partisan editorializing we’ve come to expect from the Old Gray Lady:

G.O.P. Pushes New Abortion Limits to Appease Vocal Base

That was the title on the web version. A note says that a version of the article appeared on page A1 of the New York print edition with this headline:

Unfazed by 2012, G.O.P. Is Seeking Abortion Limits

You’ll search in vain for a label indicating the piece is “news analysis,” the fig leaf that allows editorials to be presented as news stories. Instead, the feature by Jeremy W. Peters is one long editorial sigh of frustration that a majority of Republicans are still, despite having lost the last presidential election, sticking with their pro-life agenda.

After Republicans lost the presidential election and seats in both the House and the Senate last year, many in the party offered a stern admonishment: If we want to broaden our appeal, steer clear of divisive social and cultural issues.

Yet after the high-profile murder trial of an abortion doctor in Philadelphia this spring, many Republicans in Washington and in state capitals across the country seem eager to reopen the emotional fight over a woman’s right to end a pregnancy. …

Much of the movement in recent weeks can be linked to the outcry over the case of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia physician who was convicted last month of first-degree murder for cutting the spines of babies after botched abortions.

His case, coming on top of successful efforts to curtail reproductive rights in several states over the last three years, has reinvigorated the anti-abortion movement to a degree not seen in years, advocates on both sides of the issue said.

If you were still wondering why it took an epic shaming by GetReligionista Mollie Hemingway to get journalists to cover the Gosnell story, there’s a hint. You can almost hear the frustration in the New York Times newsroom: “This is the type of nonsense that comes from bringing attention to Gosnell.”

But it gets better. Check out the next paragraph:

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Tintin and the Catholic Charismatics

The story so far … Intrepid reporter Tintin, accompanied by his faithful fox terrier Snowy, has travel to Brazil to report on the preparations for the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day celebrations in July. Upon his arrival Tintin finds the natives have abandoned their base communities and liberation theology for Catholic Pentecostalism. Who is behind this tragedy? Soviets, American gangsters, Jews? Can our hero rescue the church from the clutches of charismatics in Brazil?

I write in jest — this disclaimer is for the perpetually offended — nevertheless a recent story from AFP, Agency France Presse, entitled “Brazil Charismatic priests try to stem Catholic flight” could easily be transformed into a comic.

There is a cartoonish, condescending quality to this article that perpetuates anti-Catholic, anti-Pentecostal stereotypes. It does not rise to the level of Hergé’s ”Tintin in the Congo“, but that was merely an 80-year old comic — this is a news story that does a second rate job in reporting on one of the major religion news stories of modern times — the rise of and reaction to Pentecostalism.

The article begins with a soft focus:

AFP – In a scene out of a pop music concert, mass at Sao Paulo’s huge Mae de Deus (Mother of God) church features spirited singing, dancing and shouting led by priests of Brazil’s rising Catholic Charismatic Renewal movement. About 6,000 faithful are seated and thousands more are standing, all waiting for the master of ceremonies and face of the movement — 46-year-old rock star Catholic priest Marcelo Rossi. With his broad smile and movie-actor good looks, the 6’4″ (1m90) former gymnast and his musicians warm up the crowd.

The article moves on to a report on church statistics and then offers comments from those who like the “rock-star” priest and a description of a service:

“Father Marcelo is charismatic and humble. You come once and you keep on coming,” said 72-year-old Olga Ribeiro, who has been following him for the past six years. “It’s a modern, dynamic mass. I had stopped going to church because I was bored,” said 58-year-old Luis Fernando Camentori.

In the middle of the service, lights go off and candles are lit. Many of the faithful burst into tears. “God will turn your pain into joy,” Rossi tells the delirious crowd. The wildly popular Rossi has already sold millions of records and books. He has his own radio and television programs, has made movies and is very active on Twitter. He has just criss-crossed the country to promote his latest book “Kairos”. In less than a month, 500,000 copies were already sold.

At this stage we hear from the experts:

“The Church in Brazil has been in crisis since the 1990s with the decline of leftist liberation theology, and its churches are becoming empty,” said Magali Cunha, a theology professor at Sao Paulo Methodist University. … While it has so far failed to stop Brazil’s Catholic exodus, “without this type of spirituality, the Catholic Church would have lost even more members,” said Edin Abumansur, head of the religion sciences department at Sao Paulo Catholic University.

The AFP’s editorial voice emerges:

And Catholic Charismatic Renewal is resorting to an arsenal of gimmicks to lure followers, including raw emotionalism, masses for cures, blessings to secure jobs or corporal expressions of faith.

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