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Pod People: Goofy Catholics and Mercy for Murderers: Get Religion, August 19, 2012 August 19, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Issues Etc, Press criticism.
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In this week’s podcast Issues Etc. host Todd Wilkin and I discussed three recent GetReligion stories: Doggie Masses offered by Inclusive Catholics in Australia, one-sided reporting on Missouri’s Amendment 2, and the parole of Michelle Martin.

Todd opened the show asking why I had lambasted the coverage of the Public Prayer Amendment in Missouri in the report from RNS. The gist of my response was that the article was unbalanced. Offering man on the street responses from Columbia, Missouri (a liberal university town not representative of the state as a whole) was unwise.  Having three “no’s” to one “yes” quotes when “yes” garnered 83 per cent of the vote was a text book case of how not to use man in the street quotes. The preponderance of negative coverage was in inverse proportion to the amendment’s support. A political reporter should not allow his own feelings of disgust with the ignorance of the electorate to color the story.

Our discussion of the coverage of the Inclusive Catholic Mass in Melbourne centered on whether or not the author of the article was making sport of the subjects of his story. I could not answer the question. If I had wanted to ridicule Inclusive Catholics I would have written the article the way the religion reporter for The Age did by showcasing the foolishness of the geriatric hipsters in the story. Todd suggested the reporter may have  written the article in a sympathetic tone — and what I found absurd the reporter found enchanting. So we are left with the mystery of ridicule or reverence.

The discussion of the parole of Michelle Martin touched mainly on the diversity of the Belgian press — Catholic, secular, liberal, conservative. The original report in GetReligion prompted discussion in the wider blogosphere that I followed with great interest.

Writing in the American Conservative, Rod Dreher’s article “Belgian Nuns Help Free (Sort Of) A Monster” showcased the sharply divided opinions about the underlying story. It also pointed out the limits of GetReligion‘s coverage which focuses on the reporting, not on the underlying story.

This can be frustrating at times as there is a latent opinion journalists in every reporter — but at GetReligion we are charged with reporting on the reporting. However, part of the fun of appearing on Issues, Etc., is that I can let fly every so often with an opinion about the issues.

So GetReligion readers, drop on by the Issues, Etc, podcast page and hear me make fun of Inclusive Catholics offer sober analyses of religion reporting.

First printed in Get Religion.

Balancing quotes on Amendment 2: Get Religion, August 9, 2012 August 13, 2012

Posted by geoconger in Get Religion, Politics.
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I write with some disappointment about the report from the Religion News Service (RNS) on Missouri’s Public Prayer Amendment (Amendment 2).  Entitled “Missouri prayer amendment passes” in the version printed in USA Today, the article is rather thin. It does not provide quotes from the amendment but seeks to summarize its language.

Given the nature of the beast — a wire service article with limited space to tell a story — the absence of direct quotes is not a defect. The defect comes in the author’s choice to frame the story in an unbalanced manner. It reverses the quote ratio — providing more responses from voters who voted “no” even though it was overwhelmingly endorsed.

The reader comes away from this article knowing little more than the Amendment passed. The “why” and “how” questions are not properly addressed.

The article begins:

Voters in Missouri overwhelmingly approved a “right to pray” amendment to the state’s constitution on Tuesday, despite concerns about the measure’s necessity and legality.

Amendment 2, which supporters said would protect the freedom of religious expression in public schools and other public spaces, received nearly 80 percent of the vote.

The editorial voice of the article is made clear from the start. Amendment 2 is overwhelmingly endorsed by the electorate, but was unnecessary. After a quote from the Amendment’s sponsor, the article recounts which religious groups supported and opposed the bill and then offers the views of unnamed experts.

…  Legal experts almost unanimously predict that the amendment will wind up in court.

Critics also argued the amendment is redundant — the U.S. Constitution already protects religious freedom. And some warned that it would spark countless lawsuits and bring unintended consequences.

Who are these experts and critics? One is:

… Greg Grenke, a 22-year-old voter from Columbia who voted against the amendment. He said he’s not against prayer — he just doesn’t think the amendment was necessary.

This is followed by:

Pediatrician Ellen Thomas, 48, said the amendment seemed like propaganda.

“I really just think it’s designed to stir up angry sentiment.” She added, “There’s no infringement on people’s right to pray as it is.”

And then we have:

Kathy Rowland, 55, of Columbia, Mo., said the amendment seemed “well-intentioned,” but unnecessary.

A contrary view, representing the 80 per cent is then offered:

“I was glad to see it,” said Margie Cravens, 87, as she left her Columbia polling place. “And we need prayer now more than ever before.”

The “man in the street” comments may provide color, but they do not answer basic questions. What was the legislative/political journey that led to the vote? Why was the vote so lop-sided? Why did liberal religious groups reject the amendment? Why did other religious groups back it? What do constitutional law professors say?

I would also ask, what was the thinking behind the selection and number of color quotes? Was it appropriate to have three no comments and one yes, when the vote was 80 per cent yes and 20 per cent no? I am not saying that the proportion of quotes should match the vote tally — but I find it odd that the ratio is reversed in this story between the quotes and the vote.

There are wire service religion reporters who consistently do an excellent job in providing solid information and strong quotes in a limited space. I’m afraid that this story is not one of those occasions. My verdict: “Needs work. Could do better.”

First published in Get Religion.