Lovers and labels in coverage of same-sex marriage ruling (updated)

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Update: Yikes! One of the drawbacks of media-criticism-on-the-go is the possibility of writing a post that, in retrospect, makes you sound really stupid.

Such is the case with this one, which prompted reader Sarah Morriss to comment:

You do know that “Virginia is for lovers” is the tourism and travel slogan used by the Commonwealth of VA, and thus the headline is likely a play on that, no?

Nope. I didn’t know that. But a quick Google search finds a Wikipedia entry describing the slogan as “one of the most iconic ad campaigns in the past 50 years.” Uh, somehow I missed it.

That does put the headline in a different light, although one could argue that not all readers nationally would understand the play on words.

My original post appears below.

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Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Let’s take a quiz and see if you can guess the source of the above message:

A. Sign at a gay-rights rally.

B. Slogan for a same-sex marriage campaign.

C. Headline on an Associated Press news story.

If you picked C, you would be mostly correct. This is the actual headline on AP’s story on a federal appeals court ruling Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban unconstitutional Monday:

U.S. court: Virginia marriage is for all lovers

Even attributing that statement to the court, the headline still strikes me as a doozy, especially given that the 98-page ruling never uses the word “lover.” The term “same-sex” does appear 151 times, along with 321 references to “marriage,” and other major news organizations stuck with more journalistically neutral headlines.

Appeals court upholds decision overturning Virginia’s same-sex marriage ban (Washington Post)

Appeals panel strikes down Virginia gay marriage ban (USA Today)

Appeals Panel Rejects Virginia Gay-Marriage Ban (New York Times)

Appeals court strikes down Va. same-sex marriage ban (Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Appeals court rejects Virginia same-sex marriage ban (CNN)

Not a lot of creativity in those headlines, granted. But not a lot of editorializing either.

The headline isn’t the only place the AP story hints at bias. The wire service quotes an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer and sees no need to label the group. The same can’t be said of the story’s treatment of a legal group that supported Virginia’s ban on same-sex marriage:

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What? You thought Francis, Peres and Abbas really prayed?

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Let’s state this in journalistic terms.

What? You thought that the mainstream journalists covering the remarkable Vatican rite offering prayers for Middle East peace rite would actually produce coverage that included any content from the prayers?

Friends and neighbors, this event was all about politics and statecraft. Clearly, if the men wanted to produce real change in the real world then the only words that they spoke that mattered were addressed to one another and, thus, to the press. Get real.

The story that most American news consumers saw this past weekend was from the Associated Press, so let’s consider that text (in the version used by The Washington Post). Here’s some of the key material about this encounter between Pope Francis, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas:

The event had the air of an outdoor summer wedding, complete with receiving line and guests mingling on the lawn as a string ensemble played. …

Vatican officials have insisted that Francis had no political agenda in inviting the two leaders to pray at his home other than to rekindle a desire for peace. But the meeting could have greater symbolic significance, given that Francis was able to bring them together at all so soon after peace talks failed and at a time that the Israeli government is trying to isolate Abbas.

“In the Middle East, symbolic gestures and incremental steps are important,” noted the Rev. Thomas Reese, a veteran Vatican analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. “And who knows what conversations can occur behind closed doors in the Vatican.”

So was the omnipresent Father Reese actually, literally at this event or was he merely acting in his unofficial role as the press spokesman for all mainstream journalists and alleged Catholic insiders who would join him in calling a Vatican prayer service a “symbolic gesture”?

No one was hiding the fact that other talks took place behind closed doors. Also, no one was hiding the fact that, with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I joining in some parts of the ceremonies (but not leading prayers), there were actually two participants present who represented elements of the Palestinian people. Well, the pope would make three, since there are Eastern Rite Catholics in the region, as well. The AP report noted:

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Worst religion story of the year? AP trashes Phil Robertson

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Sigh…no context, just a quick Associated Press gotcha blurb. 

Yep, that reader’s email to GetReligion pretty much sums up an atrocious, 135-word piece of AP “journalism” on Phil Robertson of “Duck Dynasty” fame.

The headline:

New anti-gay remarks by ‘Duck Dynasty’ star emerge

The lede:

NEW YORK (AP) — A&E has declined to comment on new video of “Duck Dynasty” star Phil Robertson reviving past anti-gay remarks.

His comments are included in a sermon delivered at his church in West Monroe, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday. Robertson includes homosexuals with other groups such as thieves and adulterers as hell-bound sinners.

What exactly did Robertson say? Did he quote the Bible inside a church (say, 1 Corinthians 6:9)? Why is it important for A&E — and not Robertson himself — to be contacted for comment?

AP provides no details at all.

Let’s keep reading:

Robertson is the bearded patriarch of a clan that manufactures duck calls and became reality-TV stars. In December he set off a firestorm after GQ magazine quoted him linking homosexual behavior to bestiality.

Here is what GQ originally reported:

What, in your mind, is sinful?

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men,” he says. Then he paraphrases Corinthians: “Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

Is that linking homosexual behavior to bestiality?

More from AP:

He also made racist statements.

From the original GQ article:

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How much religion news can fit in 300-500 words?

Given your short attention span, I’ll make this brief.

And I’ll get right to the point: For once, The Associated Press is making news instead of reporting it.

Here’s the story as reported by The Washington Post:

Citing a “sea of bloated mid-level copy,” Associated Press Managing Editor for U.S. News Brian Carovillano last week instructed fellow editors at the wire service to limit most “daily, bylined digest stories” to a length of between 300 and 500 words. Top stories from each state, Carovillano directed, should hit the 500 to 700-word range, and the “top global stories” may exceed 700 words but must still be “tightly written and edited.”

Carovillano’s memo itself references the driving force behind the limits: “Our members do not have the resources to trim the excess to fit shrinking news holes,” notes the editor.

Paul Colford, a spokesman for AP, notes that a “common concern” among AP members and subscribers is that stories are too long. In recent months, says Colford, the wire service has been trimming stories in Europe and the outcome has been “successful.”

Noting that the memo encouraged AP reporters to “consider using alternative story forms either to break out details from longer stories, or in lieu of a traditional text story,” a Poynter Institute blogger quipped:

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About that ‘complex’ doctrine Catholic teachers must follow

Imagine this lede atop a national wire service story:

CINCINNATI (AP) — Parochial teachers are so ignorant of basic Roman Catholic doctrine the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving them a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

That is, of course, not the spin that The Associated Press took.

Here’s the actual opening paragraph of an AP story published this week:

CINCINNATI (AP) — The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church is so complex the Archdiocese of Cincinnati is giving teachers a cheat sheet on some of the things that can get them fired.

Complex doctrine, huh? According to whom?

The story continues:

A new contract proposal from the diocese specifies some violations of Catholic doctrine that could put teachers out of a job — including abortion, artificial insemination and “homosexual lifestyles” — and extends forbidden behavior to include public support for those kinds of causes, drawing some complaints that the language is overly broad and a cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue.

Again, the story seems tilted — and tell me if I’m wrong — toward the teachers’ perspective.

Notice that the proposal is characterized as a “cynical attempt to make it harder for wrongfully terminated teachers to sue,” not a “crafty attempt to make it harder for rightfully terminated teachers to claim naiveté.”

AP quotes an archdiocese spokesman as saying the proposal clarifies what is expected of teachers, then provides background on a lawsuit filed by a teacher fired for getting pregnant through artificial insemination and a separate lawsuit filed by an unmarried teacher fired for getting pregnant.

Keep reading, and the story gives three sources critical of the proposal an opportunity to bash it, one after another. That tag team of critics starts with a union leader not even from Cincinnati:

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Ghosts haunt AP story on Boy Scouts of America

When my oldest son was a Boy Scout, the entire experience was couched in church settings.

His pack meetings took place in church halls,  and ceremonies were scheduled in church sanctuaries and auditoriums. His pack leaders often doubled as congregational lay leaders, and the boys were asked once a year to don their uniforms and lead a special “Scout Sunday” worship. When the boys recited the oath, the “Under God” portion no doubt resonated within their surroundings.

I was surprised, then, by The Associated Press’ story on new statistics released Wednesday that show a 6 percent membership decline in the last year — a year during which new rules were put in place to accept and protect openly gay Scouts, from Cubs to Eagles.

The story had a Dallas dateline, undoubtedly tied to the organization’s national headquarters in nearby Irving, Texas. Beyond that obvious connection, what better area in the country to find a wide array of faith groups willing and able to speak intelligently about the impact of the change on troops with which they might have alliances or sponsorship?

But, no.

We hear from Scouting spokesman Deron Smith, who admitted the change might be partially responsible, but blamed the loss of thousands of boys and their families more on day-to-day time demands and the relevancy of its programs — and over the course of the last decade, not just nine months. And Smith touted the positives of the organization, as you might expect:

He pointed to several successes in 2013 for the Boy Scouts, which opened a new permanent site for its annual jamboree of Scouts from around the world and was featured on a National Geographic television series.

“Last year was a milestone year for the BSA in many ways,” he said.

He added that accepting openly gay boys “allows us to serve more kids.”

Well, not by the final count. Still, the most telling graf of the entire piece is yet to come — and without attribution, even!

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The second storytelling rule: Get the name of the church

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The first storytelling rule: Get the name of the dog.

So says Poynter Institute writing guru Roy Peter Clark.

For the purposes of GetReligion, I’ll add a second rule: Get the name of the church.

I found myself frustrated with the generic churches featured in a Wall Street Journal story on South Africa’s national day of prayer, held Sunday in the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death.

QUNU, South Africa — South Africans filled houses of worship on Sunday to remember their first black leader, Nelson Mandela, whose death last week sparked an outpouring of grief, remembrance and preparations for his hometown funeral and a memorial at a soccer stadium.

Mr. Mandela, who died Thursday evening at his Johannesburg home at 95 years old, enjoyed near mythical status in the racially divided country, and President Jacob Zuma had designated Sunday as a day of prayer and reflection on his life.

South African officials fanned out to different churches and synagogues in what amounted to a campaign to use the spirit of the late statesman to bridge the nation’s lingering societal divides.

“We should not forget the values that Madiba stood for and sacrificed his life for,” President Zuma told those gathered at a church in Johannesburg, using Mr. Mandela’s clan name. “He actively participated to remove the oppressor to liberate the people of this country. When our struggle came to an end, he preached and practiced reconciliation to make those who had been fighting to forgive one another and become one nation.”

That’s a perfectly fine summary of the day’s events. Except I want to know the name of the church. And beyond that, I’d love some insight on why the president chose the particular church where he spoke. Was there a historical or spiritual significance to the venue?

Later in the story:

“I’m worried about this current government but we must release Mandela because he has worked hard for us,” said 71-year-old Beatrice Mathsqi, attending another prayer service in Mqhekezweni, where Mr. Mandela lived after Qunu.

But what was the name of the church where she attended the prayer service? Am I wrong to want less vague identification of the houses of worship featured?

Contrast the story by the Journal — an exceptional newspaper that I praise way more often than I criticize — with the prayer day story published by the Washington Post:

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Blessed corpses — and holy ghosts — after typhoon

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Here’s my nominee for “Most Bland Headline of the Weekend.” It appeared atop an Associated Press report:

Church services held in typhoon-shattered city

On the other hand, the story’s lede is pretty compelling:

TACLOBAN, Philippines (AP) — Hours after the storm hit the Philippines, the Rev. Amadero Alvero was on the streets, sprinkling holy water over the dead and praying for them. By late afternoon, the 44-year-priest had blessed about 50 corpses in the remains of this shattered city.

He then returned to his half-destroyed Santo Nino church and led Mass. On Sunday, Alvero was again overseeing worship at the peach-colored building, leading services for hundreds of survivors of one of the worst storms on record.

“Despite what happened, we still believe in God,” he said. “The church may have been destroyed, but our faith is intact, as believers, as a people of God, our faith has not been destroyed.”

Before I get to my GetReligion-specific point, let me make a general journalistic observation: This story seems to lack strong editing.

The “44-year-priest” reference in the first sentence leaves me wondering if the reporter meant to say “44-year-old priest.” If the idea really is that the priest has served for 44 years, then no hyphen is needed between “year” and “priest.” In any case, the wording strikes me as awkward.

Meanwhile, that last quote (starting with “The church may have been destroyed”) needs a period, not a comma, after “intact.” Right now, two independent thoughts are joined into a single run-on sentence. (And yes, I’m fully aware that my pointing out such an error guarantees that someone will find a grammatical error in this post and comment on it. Thank you in advance.)

But here’s my bigger concern about this story: the lack of explanation on the practice of sprinkling holy water over the dead.

The story points out that more than 80 percent of the 90 million residents of the Philippines are Roman Catholic. However, this is the only additional information provided on Alvero’s blessing of the corpses:

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