Both The Washington Post and The Washington Times covered a Virginia state court ruling Friday regarding the constitutionality of a longstanding state law that could allow the 11 congregations who have left the Episcopal Church over the last couple of years to keep their multi-million dollar properties. The tone and perspective of the two stories are rather stark. Just look look at the headlines. Here is the Post's:
Episcopal Church Loses In Court
And now the headline in the Times:
Virginia judge affirms parish property rights
I guess the upholding of one group's "property rights" is another group's lost legal battle.
The Times article, written by friend-of-the-blog Julia Duin, focuses heavily on the legal consequences of the judge's ruling, inter-mixing the history of the conflict, while the Post article primarily focuses on the background of the rather complicated story.
A reader noted to us that the Post's reporting unprofessionally uses the word "spat" to describe the conflict and repeatedly refers to the 11 churches as "the breakaway congregations." Duin on the other hand, refers to the group of 11 churches as "11 former Episcopal churches that left the Diocese of Virginia 18 months ago over issues of theology and the 2003 consecration of the denomination's first openly gay bishop" and subsequently as simply "the churches." I know the story is complicated but why can't neutral terms be used to describe the two groups?
The Post goes an extra step further in quoting a seemingly objective "expert" who actually turns out to be taking sides in this legal battle:
It was not immediately clear what happens next in the complex, two-track legal dispute. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to demand that the conservatives leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall to determine who gets the property, and Bellows yesterday asked each side to file a brief in the next few weeks laying out how his ruling affects that proceeding.
Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the "only way" for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Diocese of Virginia.
Oh, snap! Not such an objective expert after all.
In addition, The Post does not seem to have the contact information of anyone associated with those "breakaway," "conservative," churches, while Duin quoted sources on both sides of the battle.
I don't envy the reporters covering this highly charged, significant, convoluted religious and legal battle. Efforts at objectivity may seem futile, but thoughtful, consistent choice of language and terms is a good place to start. The Post seems to have particular difficulty in talking to representatives of both sides and avoiding pejorative shorthand terms.