On same-sex marriage, 'Amen!' to what Poynter said about covering the battles ahead — with a few quibbles

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in favor of same-sex marriage Friday, some media organizations couldn't resist celebrating:

Almost immediately, a Pennsylvania newspaper announced that it would no longer publish letters from those opposed to same-sex marriage -- a decision that drew a backlash and prompted the paper to "further elaborate":

Our own tmatt has more to say about that case.

Against such a backdrop ("Kellerism," anyone?), wouldn't it be really nice if a respected voice stepped in and preached a sermon on the need for fair, thoughtful journalism?

Enter Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute — the influential journalism think tank.

Tompkins delivered just such a message in a piece he wrote this week:

Some of what Topkins had to say:

Now that the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage has had time to sink in, journalists should wake up to the fact that a complicated and contentious debate lies ahead. Just as Brown v. The Board of Education didn’t end discrimination in schools and Roe v. Wade did not end the abortion debate,Obergefell v. Hodges will not end the opposition to same-sex marriage. The next battles may be in churches, where the Court’s decision cannot interfere. ...
(J)ournalists have more stories to write about this issue. Stories that involve deeply held religious beliefs. Whether you believe those beliefs are outdated or nonsensical should not shape your reporting when it comes to covering matters of faith. It is different than covering the political and social issues around same-sex marriage. The law allows churches and religions to ban women from serving in some positions. The law allows churches and church-run schools to insist that employees pledge their faith to get a job. The law allows churches to fire a pastor who acts immorally or forbid a priest from marrying. The Supreme Court decision last week will, no doubt, ignite great debates inside churches about how to comply with the law while adhering to the canons of their faith. You will be (or should be) covering this struggle.

To the spirit of what Tompkins said, here's my response: Amen! Amen! Amen!

But to the specifics — the idea that the next battles may be inside churches — let me gently suggest that Tompkins educate himself on the already looming battles in the faith-based arena outside churches.

When Tompkins says that "The law allows churches and church-run schools to insist that employees pledge their faith to get a job," he's right. But could that soon change? Could the tax exemptions of churches or the funding of faith-based organizations be threatened?:

More great thoughts from Tompkins, who follows up his note that journalists "will be (or should be) covering this struggle" with this:

That’s why it’s such a bad idea for journalists to be publicly celebrating the Court’s decision last week. But when journalists use trending hashtags that carry an editorial message, it may undercut their intentions to appear to be fair, accurate and open to many sides of the story.
#LoveWins trended on Twitter Friday after the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage. By midmorning, Twitter started adding a little rainbow heart on the #LoveWins hashtag. Businesses from IBM to American Airlines and the San Francisco 49ers joined in the public display of support. And on Friday, Politico’s Dylan Byers asked “Should news outlets declare allegiances?”
It is not that journalists should not have feelings about the decision. But I suspect you also have feelings about gun control and Obamacare. But you find ways to report around your biases every day. A good measure for how to handle this would be whether you would use a hashtag or change your logo if the Court had decided differently. Would you use #HateWins or #LoveLoses? Would you have used the rainbow flag colors no matter what the decision? Celebratory trending logos and hashtags are no substitute for long-term thoughtful coverage of controversial issues.

Again, I wholeheartedly endorse the spirit of what Tompkins said there. But I will quibble, respectfully, with the notion that journalists should want to "appear to be fair, accurate and open to many sides of the story." Do they want to appear to be those things? Or do they actually want to be those things? I'm picking nits, but there's a difference.

Finally, I'd endorse Tompkins' call for journalists to educate themselves on what religious groups teach and believe — and to talk to actual people on all sides and seek to understand while avoiding stereotypes and labels:

Earnestly listen to those who have religious concerns. Get smarter about the religious principles that those who oppose the ruling cite. When they say the Bible or Koran forbid same-sex relationships, know enough about those teachings to question and challenge the claims, just as you would challenge a politician about health care, environmental safety or economic policy. ReligionLink is a good place to start. It is run by the Religion Newswriters Association.

I'm not so sure getting up to speed on thousands of years of religious history or doctrines will be as simple as a crash course in health care, environmental safety or economic policy.

But again, I like that Tompkins pushes journalists to act as, you know, journalists — as opposed to celebrants or advocates.

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