Grading coverage of religious liberty

Beginning in late January, I've looked at various difficulties the mainstream media has had with handling questions surrounding religious freedom. When the Obama Administration announced in mid-January that it would not broaden an exemption for a new mandate requiring religious employers to pay for insurance plans that cover contraception, sterilization and abortion drugs, the story -- which had been brewing for many months -- took off. Generally speaking, fans of the mandate say it is an important step to advancing greater access to contraception. Critics say it violates religious freedom. And political campaigners on all sides see it as an issue ripe for exploitation and grandstanding. These elements have combined in various ways to shape the larger coverage of the mandate. The first media analysis issue to note was that while U.S. Catholic Bishops were at Defcon 2 or so in their response, media coverage was surprisingly restrained (see, for example, my January 31 post: Catholics outraged, media unimpressed). That restraint was particularly noteworthy in light of the excessive coverage of Susan G. Komen For The Cure's decision to voluntarily stop donating money to the country's biggest abortion provider (see, for example, my posts on February 2: Media discover Planned Parenthood is controversial , February 3, 2012: Media genuflect before Church of Planned Parenthood,  February 6: Planned Parenthood and media thank each other and February 7: Kurtz: Of course Komen stories were biased).

As February progressed, I noticed some trends with how religious freedom concerns were being presented. Namely, the media seemed to have some problems with downplaying religious freedom concerns relative to the perspective of the mandate's supporters. You can see a sample of some of these problems in my posts from February 8: Blind spots breaking out all over, February 10: Frame game: the importance and composition of polling, February 14: Lies, damned lies and 98 percent of Catholic women, February 16: In HHS flap, media prefer politics to religion, February 17: Media ignore women, for women, February 24: Media shirk debate on religious liberty.

I continued looking at problems with the way the media framed the stories in March. You can see, for example, some issues that I raised in March 1: Spoon-feeding partisan talking points, March 5: Debating access to religious liberty, March 13: Why ignoring religious liberty is bad journalism, March 20: Working hard to avoid religious freedom, March 23: Scaring people away from religious freedom. I also highlighted one particular story that covered a religious freedom rally rather well (by which I mean as if it were an actual news story that included real people with legitimate concerns about religious freedom) in March 29's: What a religious freedom rally looks like.

I took a break from the religious freedom issue (and that's not to my credit) in April with the exception of April 30: Got News? Sebelius unaware of religious liberty cases.

In that post, I highlighted some rather eye-opening answers to Congressional queries from Kathleen Sebelius, the Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department that issued the mandate regulations. If you were the type of person to think that the religious freedom angle to this story was worth exploring more or better than it has been, as I am, the lack of mainstream media coverage of this testimony was telling.

But Mark Silk of Religion News Service thought my post was bad. I'm not entirely sure on what grounds he thought it was bad. Godbeat pro Bob Smietana says that Silk launched a "head-slap" at me, for what it's worth.

It didn't land too hard. I am honestly not entirely sure what his complaint is, particularly since he seems to agree with the post in general. I guess the crux of the complaint is here:

Earlier this week, GetReligionista Mollie Ziegler was on deck with the latest in a series of critiques of coverage of the HHS contraception mandate story.

One of the ways the media have botched this story is by couching it as a debate over contraception as opposed to a debate over religious freedom. While it’s true that certain players in the battle do view it as a debate over contraception--and that is a legitimate and worthwhile avenue for coverage--it’s also true that other players in the battle (who may not even care about contraception or generally approve of it) view this as as a religious liberty debate. That side of the story has suffered from weaker coverage.

Given that over 1,300 stories mentioning "bishops" and "religious liberty" have appeared in the English-language media since January 1 (according to Lexis-Nexis Academic), I wouldn't say that the press has exactly ignored the story's religious liberty angle. But that's not been enough for Ziegler. As she puts it, "It has been a very, very, very frustrating experience for those of us who are expressing concern about the separation of church and state as it relates to the mandates of the massive health care legislation passed in 2010."

As sure as God made little green apples, there are parties to the debate who are terribly anxious to frame this as a religious liberty story. Whether the media should go along, however, is another question.

Well, where to begin. Let's take my note that the religious liberty side of the story has suffered from weaker coverage. In response to that, Silk says that since 1,300 stories mentioning "bishops" and "religious liberty" have appeared in the English-language media since January 1, he wouldn't say the press has exactly ignored that side of the story. See how "weaker coverage" morphs into "ignored"?

Let's grant that 1,300 stories have appeared (by my count in Nexis, it's actually just over 2,000.). This includes Catholic newspapers and conservative publications in addition to mainstream newspapers, but the point is that they exist. But guess how many stories Nexis records for articles mentioning "Sandra Fluke" and "contraception" since January 1. If you guessed 2,343, you win the prize.

But even that quantitative analysis doesn't get at the point of GetReligion's critiques thus far. For instance, we've shown how even if a story does mention those bishops and their religious issues, it certainly isn't the framing device they have chosen. They tend to frame it as a battle over access to contraception and include, lower down, a mention of the religious freedom concerns. Now, perhaps neither framing device is appropriate, given how divergent the mandate's fans and opponents are, but the point is that we're seeing quite a bit of coverage that favors a particular outlook on this story at the expense of another outlook. Since we advocate for a mainstream model of journalism that doesn't take sides, we've been critical of this slanted coverage.

Anyway, Silk is correct that there are countless millions of Americans who are terribly anxious to see some stories framed in terms of religious liberty. (Maybe even without scare quotes a few times.) He asks, though, whether the media should "go along" with readers' and viewers' desire to have stories that reflect religious freedom concerns. Here at GetReligion, we'd advocate that stories do something much more journalistic than "go along" with the religious liberty questions. These are huge issues, they will be huge issues when the courts decide the religious liberty questions, and there is much to explore. Those initial concerns and questions about religious liberty should be mentioned, first off. But then they should be scrutinized and evaluated and, in general, reporters should go much deeper investigating this side of the equation. Likewise, just as support for contraceptive mandates has been highlighted (and, to be sure, occasionally cheered on) by the media, this support should also be scrutinized and evaluated. I'm sure most good reporters have guilt files on all the stories that could be explored surrounding this mandate.

The point is that since this is a complicated story with strongly opposed factions, there is opportunity for much more fair and accurate coverage.

Silk goes on to note that many Americans are unhappy with the health care law in general and he quotes Peggy Steinfels at Commonweal suspecting that religious liberty concerns may not be all they're cracked up to be. Maybe it's not about religious freedom so much as about anti-Obama prejudice, for instance.

Silk ends by saying:

The bottom line here is that by pushing the contraception mandate story's religious liberty angle hard, GetReligion is playing the mandate opponents' game.

As has been discussed frequently here at GetReligion and elsewhere, there is something of a battle for the soul of American mainstream media. Some are openly advocating for less balance and more advocacy by the mainstream press -- a European model, if you will. Others, such as those of us here, are arguing for something more modest, if much more difficult. We believe in a press that has a more restrained vision for what it can and should aim for: the presentation of controversial and important issues in a fair and accurate manner. Calling for fair and accurate coverage of multiple sides of a debate is what we do. Does that serve only one side of a debate? It shouldn't. If it does, that's not an indictment of what we're calling for so much as an indictment of what's been happening in the presentation of the issue to this point. Encouraging reporters to aim for fair and accurate coverage -- not just of the side that advocates for the contraceptive mandate but also for the side that expresses alarm about it -- is important and certainly not a game.

I'm open to someone arguing that coverage of religious liberty concerns has been handled well. The case hasn't been made yet. Until then, we'll continue to advocate for balanced coverage of important topics such as this HHS mandate.

Photo of media critic showing results of a regression analysis of HHS mandate coverage via Shutterstock.

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