How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate

How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate April 3, 2014

Let’s assume that many if not most professionals in an elite newsroom in Southern California — The Los Angeles Times, perhaps — will be tempted to believe that they know more about sex than most parents and educators in the Bible Belt state of Mississippi. Safe assumption?

My goal here is not to settle that question, so please do not click “comment” just yet.

If the leaders of this newspaper decided to write a news feature on sex education in Mississippi, I would assume that they would know, from the get-go, that they would need to go out of their way to quote the voices of articulate, qualified people in Mississippi on both sides of this hot-button issue. After all, journalists committed to journalism would never think of imposing their own beliefs and values on, let’s say, people in radically different cultures overseas, cultures built in part on other religions such as Islam or Hinduism. Right?

Ironically, the journalists in this case study face a challenge that is very similar to the one faced by Mississippi educators — they are trying to find a way for committed believers with clashing views to be heard in the same forum. One group is trying to mix clashing voices in classrooms, while the other is trying to do balanced, accurate, fair-minded journalism in a major newspaper.

So with that in mind, let’s scan the Los Angeles Times story that just ran under this double-decker headline:

Sex education stumbles in Mississippi

Even a law requiring schools to teach sex ed is falling short in a state with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the U.S.

And here’s the opening of the story:

TUNICA, Miss. — Marie Barnard was delighted when, after decades of silence on the topic, Mississippi passed a law requiring school districts to teach sex education. But the lesson involving the Peppermint Pattie wasn’t what she had in mind for her sons.

The curricula adopted by the school district in Oxford called on students to unwrap a piece of chocolate, pass it around class and observe how dirty it became.

“They’re using the Peppermint Pattie to show that a girl is no longer clean or valuable after she’s had sex — that she’s been used,” said Barnard, who works in public health. “That shouldn’t be the lesson we send kids about sex.”

She and other parents lobbied the district to teach about contraception, not just abstinence. After all, as she and other parents noted, 76% of Mississippi teenagers report having sex before the end of high school.

OK, remember that the purpose of this post is not to argue about sex education. My goal is to discuss journalism ABOUT a debate over sex education.

What is the warning flag in that opening anecdote?

Right: The newspaper accepts as gospel truth Barnard’s second-hand quotation about what was taught in that Peppermint Pattie session. After using a second-hand quotation like that one, it was going to be very, very important for the Times (a) to confirm what was actually contained in the guidelines for that class and/or (b) what the teacher leading the class actually said. If that is not possible, it would certainly be crucial to talk to a teacher or school official who knows what teachers are instructed to say in that class exercise and, thus, can explain the intended message.

In other words, it is not good journalism to assume that the enemies of a particular point of view are the best authorities on the content or intent of those who advocate that point of view. That’s true when dealing with ideas, movements and people on the cultural left and right. It’s simply basic journalism.

Now, does this Times report include material from an articulate defender of that classroom lesson or others like it? After all, the journalistic goal is to be fair and accurate when dealing with both sides of this debate. Correct?

So how many cultural conservatives are quoted in this piece, how many experts on the logic behind that point of view?

It appears that the answer to that question is, “Zero.” As in none. As in this story contains lots of articulate and necessary quotes from enemies of “abstinence only” and only second-hand quotes representing the views of the conservatives that they oppose.

In other words, this is a public-relations piece for the sex-education progressives — period.

Now two things are clear, after reading this feature story:

(1) Mississippi has major problems with teen pregnancy, problems that — in the real world — are almost certainly rooted a complex and dense set of causes. This article is focusing on a very important issue, one that deserves in-depth coverage.

(2) It is absolutely clear that the Times editors, and the sources they spotlighted — to the exclusion of all others — believe that the major problem is traditional Christianity. Thus, readers are told:

… (P)arts of the law designed to appease conservatives in this deeply religious state have stymied those who want to teach about safe sex. To participate in sex education classes, students must get a signed permission slip from their parents, which some districts that don’t support the law have made especially challenging. …

The law required school districts to choose between abstinence-only programs that tell students to wait until marriage to have sex, or “abstinence-plus” programs that urge abstinence but also teach about contraception. Of Mississippi’s 151 school districts and four special schools, 81 chose abstinence-only and 71 chose abstinence-plus; some districts did a combination of the two.

And this:

“It’s a heavy lift in some communities,” said Rachel Canter, executive director of Mississippi First. “There are strong personalities on some school boards who adamantly believe that the Bible says abstinence only.”

The debates about which sex education policy to adopt illuminate the values in a state that, according to surveys, is among the most religious in the country.

And then this:

“This is a very devoutly religious community — church-oriented and Bible-based; that’s what they wanted for their children,” said Pamela Johnson, the school board president. “The board was adamant that we wanted to implement the curriculum that was based on our community’s beliefs.”

In the end, I think it is safe to draw another journalistic conclusion: The professionals who produced this alleged news piece had no interest in doing an accurate, fair and balanced story that covered the beliefs of articulate, qualified leaders on both sides of this important debate. They also had no interest in other social, moral and financial factors that are linked to those high teen pregnancy rates.

Again, I am not here to argue about the views of the people on either side of this debate. Don’t go there. I’m talking about the journalistic quality of this piece.

The bottom line: This was a hit job.

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4 responses to “How not to cover a Bible Belt sex-education debate”

  1. If they really want to do a hit job, why not go to Mississippi and find out what the religious folks think about the pregnancy rate in their state and what they think would help. Then they could expose the conservative bible thumpers as ignorant rubes. Unless they’re not, in which case, you might end up with an interesting story instead of a hit piece.

  2. Yep, I think you’re right about the quality of the piece: pretty dismal. I wonder if it comes so much from an intention to slam a point of view as from a world view that simply can’t countenance another way of thinking about these sorts of things.

    Of course, I also wonder if it would matter which of those is actually the case. Actual malice and willful ignorance both seem to produce the same deplorable results.

  3. Maybe I’m missing something, but those quotes you highlight about people wanting sex ed to be in line with their religious beliefs aren’t at all negative. It certainly would have been better to get some quotes from the people themselves, and I would have really liked to have read a defense (or clarification) of the horrifying Peppermint Patty story.