Pod People: Toward a more consistent scare-quote policy

In this week's "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I looked over a couple of stories I analyzed this week dealing with religion in the public square. Mark Silk over at Religion News Service took up my request for an explanation of why some media outlets use scare quotes around the terms "religious liberty" or "religious freedom," a journalistic tic some opponents of the HHS mandate have been finding a troublesome indicator of whether or not they're receiving fair coverage of their arguments:

There is a fairly vigorous debate going on at the moment about whether religious liberty is really under attack by the government and whether those who say they are defending it are really motivated by concern about religious liberty--as opposed to, perhaps, desire to defeat President Obama in November.

Among the reasons Wikipedia gives for using scare quotes is "to alert the reader that the word or phrase...should be understood to include caveats to the conventional meaning." In this case, the caveat is that the National Religious Freedom Conference might not be exactly what it seems to be. Covering the conference for NCR on his blog, Michael Sean Winters--who really does consider religious liberty (in the Roman Catholic sense) to be under attack--conveyed just such a suspicion: "What depresses me about such events as this is that it is hard to miss the partisan agenda at work, even if the cause is a good one."

So the scare quotes are there to alert the reader that religious liberty may not actually be in need of defense and that the "defenders" may actually be up to something else. Get the philosophy?

Silk is very focused on the idea that advocates of religious liberty aren't really upset about an infringement against religious liberty but that what we're seeing is "simply anti-Obama prejudice" as one of the people he's favorably quoted pooh-poohing their concerns has said.

You might read Silk's last paragraph again. I'm not entirely sure what to say other than that it's surprising that advocates of religious liberty think they are dealing with a media that is somewhat hostile to them, eh? I mean, I suppose it makes it easier to justify weak coverage of a huge human rights issue if you assume the worst and most partisan motivations of those with whom you disagree (and only them, not the other side of the issue, mind you), but I'm not entirely sure it's a great journalistic strategy.

In the comment section, Religion News Service editor Kevin Eckstrom supports Silk and explains further:

Mark makes a good point here. And I’m troubled by Mollie’s not-so-subtle implications. Mollie’s implying that we’re using scare quotes as a way of signaling our disagreement with the religious liberty cause. Not so.

We put “religious liberty” in not-scary quotes simply to signal to the reader that this is not a neutral term. As Mark pointed out, there’s vast disagreement about whether religious liberty or religious freedom is, in fact, under attack. Mollie may think so, and the Catholic bishops may think so, but that’s not enough. There are countless others on the other side who see this as a fight over contraception, or government mandates, or health care, or whatever else you want to call it.

If the headline had been “Activists gather to plot defense of religious liberty,” that would be equally loaded, because it would signal to the other side that we, too, share the idea that this is a fight over religious liberty. It’s not that we agree or disagree; it simply says that we’re not picking sides on this one.

So, Mollie, no, there is not universal agreement that this is a fight over religious liberty. That’s why we put it in quotes, to signal that this is their term, not ours, and not everyone else’s.

And that explains why media outlets use so many quotes when covering hot-button social issues with deep divisions over the terms of the debate, right?

Or as a commenter to a previous thread on scare quotes put it in response to a different reporter defending some use of scare quotes:

Jeffrey, it occurs to me that if you are being consistent in your defense of using quotation marks in this way and in your defense of the “abortion rights” language now in widespread use, you should be advocating that the word “rights” be put in quotation marks. After all, key to the abortion debate is the question of whether such rights exist at all. It’s a controverted use of the word “rights.”

Same thing with the marriage debate. Proponents of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples obviously believe there is such a thing as same-sex marriage, while many opponents believe that it’s an ontological impossibility, an oxymoron, i.e. that the definition of marriage not only should not be changed in this way but objectively cannot be changed in this way, that attempts to marry two people of the same sex amount to pretending but not effecting such a thing. So there again, the quotation style that was (I gather) used by the Washington Times, of putting the word “marriage” in quotation marks when referring to the controverted usage, would be a good, neutral way for a reporter to signify to readers that there is controversy over the usage. Right?

You can read through this previous thread for the discussion of how a consistent scare quote policy would affect coverage of abortion. But as for the marriage issue, obviously there is huge debate over whether marriage can include same-sex couples (proponents of traditional marriage laws say that the term "same-sex marriage" is akin to saying "square circle" or some such thing). While the mainstream media is becoming more honest about its advocacy role in promoting changing marriage law, voters in the states that have had an opportunity to clarify the meaning and definition of marriage have supported a definition that limits it to heterosexual unions. Huge debate. Yet we don't seem to see many examples of quotes around the terms, do we? Do we see any examples of that?

So is this really RNS' standard? If scare quotes are to be used any time a term is a matter of serious public debate (and I'm not convinced at this point there is serious debate over whether the lawsuits and arguments of those opposed to the HHS mandate concern religious liberty), then what that means is that we should be seeing these quotes all over the place for terms that are under debate.

Do we not see the quotes around abortion "rights" and same-sex "marriage" because the media sense that they would be prejudicial? (For my part, I'd argue that they'd be right that it's prejudicial, but, then again, I'm not defending the use of scare quotes for religious liberty issues.) Is there a good argument for scare-quoting religious freedom but not same-sex marriage and abortion rights?

Are we seeing inconsistencies in media coverage of certain causes? Does this bolster my argument that the use of scare quotes has a large downside and not much, if any, benefit? What do you think?

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