Why ignoring religious liberty is bad journalism

So we've been chronicling a few of the problems with the media coverage of President Obama's mandate that requires employers, including religious organizations, to purchase insurance that covers contraception, abortifacients and sterilization, even if one or more of those things violate their religious beliefs. Our January posts on the matter are here and here. Our February posts are here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The March posts are here, here, here and here. Early in February, tmatt identified some curiosities with how the story was being framed. As he put it:

The frame game continues, with a coalition of conservative religious groups — the traditionalist wings of most major religious groups — insisting that their battle with the Obama White House is not essentially about birth control, but about religious liberty and the separation of church and state. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, of course, says the battle is about birth control and quality health care.

It is of course very important to tell the perspective of the Obama administration and its supporters on this topic. And that side of the story has been told. What hasn't been as strong, to put it so mildly as to possibly elicit laughter from some of you, is the side that insists this battle is about religious liberty. Or, if that story has been told, it's been told as part of some political drama involving Republicans and Democrats (which fails to explain the depth and complexity and history of this battle).

Now that we're approaching two months of lopsided coverage on the matter, and just after a couple of weeks of particularly histrionic "war on women" coverage, I wanted to point out a couple of stories as well as a couple of polls.

Last week, Karen Tumulty had a story in the Washington Post about how the contraception battle is supposedly devastating Republican candidates. The phrase "religious freedom" does appear in the story. Once. In the 30th paragraph. It includes such lines as "But many Republicans are beginning to wish they had never waded into what has become a heated conversation over contraception, who should have it and what it says about people who use it." Yeah, that kind of story.

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a somewhat bizarre story which required eight reporters to find five women who say that they may not vote or, if they do, they may not vote Republican. It includes frequent uses of the word "some" (and other marks of high precision) and lines such as this "The sudden return of the 'culture wars' over the rights of women and their place in society has resulted, the women said, in a distinct change in mood in the past several weeks." Their place in society? Oh do simmer down, eight reporters for the New York Times. Check this paragraph out:

To what extent women feel alienated remains unclear: most interviews for this article were conducted from a randomly generated list of voters who had been surveyed in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, and their responses are anecdotal, not conclusive. But the latest comments from the Republican candidates and in the right-wing media, aimed at energizing the party’s conservative base, have been enraging to some women.

So the New York Times ran a push poll, essentially. And even then they weren't that successful.

OK, so you know what you're supposed to think, if you read the Washington Post and the New York Times: those ladies with their lady parts are taking to their fainting couches over the GOP's war on women. And women don't care about religious liberty or any other issue. They're really motivated by hyped up stories about contraception.

So how devastated are the Republican candidates? How much of a bump is President Obama seeing in these polls? First, we'll look at the Boston Globe, which writes about how Elizabeth "contraception" Warren isn't faring as well as she'd hoped against Sen. Scott "religious liberty" Brown:

But, if several of the recent polls are correct, Brown may have benefited from his positions on social issues in the last few weeks, such as the one over whether Catholic institutions should be forced to provide contraception in their health care plans for workers.

Hmm. Maybe what the Post and New York Times claim about female voters is limited to the presidential race?

Well, the Washington Post has a new poll out that shows President Obama is losing support from both men and women. The only thing to suggest that the "war on women" meme was helpful to Obama is that when his support declined among women, it declined less than it did among men. (By the way, you simply must read the whole report linked here ("Obama Fares Worse Among Women after Month-Long Contraception Mandate Battle") for details on how Tumulty's original story was a bit overheated. It sounds like it changed dramatically after reporter John McCormack took her to task, although I don't see her corrections and revisions indicated at the bottom of the story...)

And the New York Times just released a poll showing declining support for Obama:

At a time of rising gas prices, heightened talk of war with Iran and setbacks in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s approval rating dropped substantially in recent weeks, the poll found, with 41 percent of respondents expressing approval of the job he is doing and 47 percent saying they disapprove — a dangerous position for any incumbent seeking re-election.

Their story includes the line that Obama:

lost some support among women over the past month, even as the debate raged over birth control insurance coverage.

But how could that be? Why just the day prior the New York Times was telling us that ("some") women were fleeing the GOP in (possible) droves to vote for Obama over the issue.

The story concludes with a brief mention of religious liberty:

In recent weeks, there has been much debate over the government’s role in guaranteeing insurance coverage for contraception, including for those who work for religious organizations. The poll found that women were split as to whether health insurance plans should cover the costs of birth control and whether employers with religious objections should be able to opt out.

Guaranteeing? I guess that's one way to describe a mandate such as this. I wonder what it means that women are "split" on this issue, but I am thankful that the New York Times is acknowledging that not all women march in lockstep on this issue. The questions asked by the New York Times were:

73. Do you think health insurance plans for all employees should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should employers be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections? (40 percent say "Cover birth control" and 51 percent say "Allowed to opt out")

74. What about for religiously affiliated employers, such as a hospital or university? Do you think their health insurance plans for all employees should have to cover the full cost of birth control for their female employees, or should they be allowed to opt out of covering that based on religious or moral objections? (36 percent say "Cover birth control" and 57 percent say "Allowed to opt out")

Even though these questions neither mention that abortion drugs will be mandated by the plan nor that employers are currently allowed to opt out, these are much better questions than were asked in the Washington Post poll (e.g. "35. Do you think health insurance companies should or should not be required to cover the full cost of birth control for women?") Another interesting question asks whether the respondent has ever personally used birth control and 35 percent answer that they have not.

Now, the reasons why the polls are showing what they're showing are many, I'm sure, but considering the biggest story of the last couple of weeks was this contraceptive mandate, it's certainly worth exploring what part it played. Perhaps if the Washington Post and New York Times had been a bit more sensitive to the religious liberty issue going into last week, they wouldn't have written stories that aren't backed up by their own polling.

Photo of reporter ignoring part of a story via Shutterstock.

Please respect our Commenting Policy