Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences

Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences July 16, 2013

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:

If two gay rights protesters were beat-up at a Christian rally, wouldn’t that have been front page news and banner headlines across the country? How is it then that this assault is only being treated as a local crime story by the media?

Dr. Burk is right. Indeed, I suspect that if the details of this particular story had been reversed — street preachers assaulting two gay rights protesters – it would also have made national headlines. So why didn’t this one? Could it be because it doesn’t fit the narrative preference of most mainstream journalists?

The narrative that Christians are bullied by gay rights supporters is considered so laughable that the Daily Show recently aired a segment to laugh at the idea. So what happens when a not-so-funny assault on Christians by gay rights supporters takes place? It’s treated as such a anomalous, unrepresentative occurrence that it can be dismissed as un-newsworthy.

I must confess that my own bias against the Christians-in-America-are-persecuted narrative may have initially caused me to dismiss the story. But I believe that for the sake of credibility, mainstream journalism should adhere to its own standards. And unfortunately that standard has been corrupted by the Westboro Baptist Church paradigm.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro cult must have the greatest publicist in America, because anytime they so much as hint that they will be showing up to protest, it makes national news. Media outlets obviously have a preference for whatever Phelps is selling, which is fine. But if a small, unrepresentative group of so-called Christians gets national media attention whenever they so much as protest at a gay rights rally, why isn’t it news when a group of Christians gets assaulted at one?

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14 responses to “Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences”

  1. But doesn’t the very fact that it is considered an “anomalous, unrepresentative occurrence” make it newsworthy? Isn’t what’s considered newsworthy that which is anomalous? The “man bites dog” story versus the “dog bites man” story? So I think it’s more than mere “narrative preferences.” I think it’s deliberate burial because they don’t want the cause to be hurt.

  2. I think because most people think preachers like this are asking for it-who wouldnt wnat to see Fred Phelps get smacked in the head?-and they werent really assaulted-couple blows-no big deal…its the same thing youd expect KKK members to get at an all black meeting-why do these religious kooks insist on ruining what is happiness and joy? they deserved it-and, frankly, gays are killed by nuts like these (or that these nuts create by their hatred) every day-boo hoo is what America says…

  3. Clearly one narrative the media will not report on is violence by gays to those who disagree with them.
    How many have heard of the butchery of a part-time Catholic parish worker, Mary Stachowicz, by a gay man who didn’t like her telling him he shouldn’t be abusing young boys. The story has been all over the internet lately (Mary’s murder has been ignored for years) on Catholic sites because Bishop Thomas Paprocki has started a movement to have her declared a martyr and canonized a saint.
    Mary’s murder was clearly a hate crime, but what little media coverage there was at the time refused to use the word hate. (According to one count there were eleven and a half million more stories on the internet about Matthew Shepherd’s murder than about Mary’s)

    • Count me as one who had not heard anything about this story. If only I were surprised by the lack of coverage–let alone the unwillingness to use the word “hate” in the few stories that did appear. Sadly, even our language is is being distorted in the rush not to offend certain groups preferred by all the presumably correct-thinking people, while offense and worse to those who disagree passes for enlightened discussion.

    • Deacon: Mary Stachowiz’s tragic death and the trial of her murderer was covered by the Chicago Tribune from 2002 (when it occurred) until her murderer was sentenced in 2007. I read most of them since I was living in the Windy City at the time.

      The Tribune at the time was one of the biggest and most profitable media companies in the country.

      I started reporting on the hate crime angle. Several conservative commentators wrote pieces suggesting that her killer be charged with a hate crime. They backed away from that idea when I called them – because they opposed the idea of hate crimes on principle.

      Here’s one of the early Trib pieces on her death.

  4. Bob- Apparently at least one major media outlet gave the story some coverage. But the same survey that showed 11million plus stories about Matthew Shepherd showed a paltry 28,000 about Mary (And that was probably mostly Catholic sources.) And it certainly didn’t get the blanket coverage the Zimmerman or Shepherd cases got.
    Consequently only a miniscule number of people have even heard of Mary’s case– or any other similar cases. And that is the way some people want it.

  5. Joe,

    This seems a clear example of a story being “Gossnelled.”

    ?(And Norman–a couple of blows to the head are no big deal? Possible concussion, maybe causing an aneurysm to blow, causing a detached retina, maybe even killing a man–none of those things is a big deal? You want to be on the receiving end of that? I’ve read some of your comments on other sites. Your best arguments seem to be calling people “idiot” and “imbecile” and similar names. You accuse others of parroting the talking points of whatever side you disagree with, while you parrot the talking points of those with whom you agree–very mature argument; very clever. Seriously, you should follow the advice the AP brass has given their staff–think before you tweet.)

    • I think Norman’s being satirical here. I can’t speak for other posts of his, but I read this as how he thinks the MTM excuse ignoring the story, when he’s actually saying that their position is ridiculous. It’s sort of like, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?”

      • Elrond PA,

        Maybe you’re right. I don’t see it, though. I’d love to have Norman speak for himself and tell me he was, indeed, being satirical.

        • He’s more likely to respond if you post your note directly as a reply to his message, so he gets notified…