AP editorializes on Girl Scouts

This just in: a lengthy Associated Press editorial focusing on the culture wars and the Girl Scouts of the USA. The only problem: AP inadvertently filed the 1,500-word analysis piece as a straightforward news story.

(Yes, I realize that I just three weeks ago defended AP against claims of widespread bias. But I did point out that some AP stories "need work, both in terms of their journalistic completeness and balance." And man, does this piece out on the wire now "need work.")

Regular GetReligion readers may recall my post back in February titled "Thin mints on thin ice?" That post dealt with the media storm over an Indiana lawmaker labeling the Girl Scouts a "radicalized organization."

AP's story, written by a New York-based national writer, concerns the Girl Scouts and Catholic bishops.

Let's start right at the top:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Long a lightning rod for conservative criticism, the Girl Scouts of the USA are now facing their highest-level challenge yet: An official inquiry by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

At issue are concerns about program materials that some Catholics find offensive, as well as assertions that the Scouts associate with other groups espousing stances that conflict with church teaching. The Scouts, who have numerous parish-sponsored troops, deny many of the claims and defend their alliances.

The inquiry coincides with the Scouts' 100th anniversary celebrations and follows a chain of other controversies.

From the cliche opening ("lightning rod for conservative criticism") to the vague, unnamed critics, the lede pretty much sets the tone for the entire piece. This is a story where the critics will be mentioned frequently but rarely identified, and typically, their criticism will be followed by a named Girl Scout source refuting the outlandish claims (as the AP writer clearly sees them).

The news peg is this:

The new inquiry will be conducted by the bishops' Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. It will look into the Scouts' "possible problematic relationships with other organizations" and various "problematic" program materials, according to a letter sent by the committee chairman, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne, Ind., to his fellow bishops.

The bishops' conference provided a copy of the letter to The Associated Press, but otherwise declined comment.

It does not help readers' understanding that the bishops refused to comment. Nor does AP's decision to quote so little of the letter benefit readers' grasp of the specific nature of the complaints.

Throughout the piece, the side with concerns about the Girl Scouts is identified with terms such as these: "some conservatives," "Catholic critics," "critics" (at least three times), "most vehement critics," "some critics" and "Christian conservatives." Who are these people? It's really hard to know based on the AP story.

But on the Girl Scout side, "recycled complaints" (the source of that is AP itself) are denied "repeatedly and categorically" by named sources and up high in the story:

Some of the concerns raised by Catholic critics are recycled complaints that have been denied by the Girl Scouts' head office repeatedly and categorically. It says it has no partnership with Planned Parenthood, and does not take positions on sexuality, birth control and abortion.

"It's been hard to get the message out there as to what is true when distortions get repeated over and over," said Gladys Padro-Soler, the Girl Scouts' director of inclusive membership strategies.

On the other side, scare quotes are used when a critic finally is mentioned by name nearly halfway through the story:

Mary Rice Hasson, a visiting fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank in Washington, accuses McCarty of "whitewashing" Girl Scout programs and policies that struck some Catholics as counter to church teaching.

"They just repeated the Girl Scouts' denials," Hasson said. "Families' concerns were minimized or ignored."

Later, there's this reference to the Boy Scouts of America (with no response from the Boy Scouts):

Even in the face of criticism, the Boys Scouts stand by their policy of excluding atheists and barring gays from leadership roles. The Girl Scouts have no such policies.

"When you have a leadership brand like Girl Scouts, it's natural that we would have some critics," said Chavez. "We're proud of our inclusive approach because that is what has always made this organization strong."

This story really is a train wreck filled with broad assertions and generalizations that favor one side. It lacks the kind of old-fashioned sourcing and attribution that characterize quality, unbiased journalism.

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