Report on prayer amendment: fair or biased?

The lead story on the front page of today's St. Louis Post-Dispatch — right there beside coverage of the Olympics — is an in-depth examination of a proposed Missouri state amendment related to prayer.

The story, written by Godbeat pro Tim Townsend (a recipient of frequent praise from your GetReligionistas), treats readers to a variety of voices and angles — pro and con — as that state's voters prepare to go the polls next week.

The top of the 1,500-word report:

A proposed amendment to the state Constitution that supporters say would protect Missourians' right to pray in public will pass by a mammoth margin if numbers from a Post-Dispatch poll hold until Aug. 7.

That's when the so-called "right to pray" ballot measure — known as Amendment 2 — will go before voters.

The measure's champions say it better defines Missourians' First Amendment rights and will help to protect the state's Christians, about 80 percent of the population, who they say are under siege in the public square.

Its opponents say that the religious protections Amendment 2 would offer are already guaranteed by the Bill of Rights and the U.S. Constitution, and that it will open the door to all manner of unintended and costly consequences including endless taxpayer-funded lawsuits.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, who opposed the original legislation, called Amendment 2 "a jobs bill for lawyers."

At first glance, the story impressed me as a straight-down-the-middle handling of a controversial issue with strong opinions on both sides. But as I kept reading — and then read it again — I couldn't strike the feeling that the story was weighted in favor of those who see the amendment as unnecessary and troublesome.

So I counted the named sources: Five people are quoted in favor of the amendment. Ten people are quoted either in opposition to the amendment or as outside critics with concerns about it.

I also counted the words: Less than one-third of the story was devoted to support for the amendment. Roughly two-thirds focused on opposition and concerns.

Certainly, skepticism is an admirable attribute for a journalist. According to the Post-Dispatch poll, 82 percent of state voters support the amendment. The journalist's job is not to rally support for a political measure. The journalist's job is to report fairly and accurately on the measure and let voters decide for themselves.

Thus, the question becomes: Is this a fair and accurate report? All the smart people (those with important-sounding affiliations after their name) come down on the opposition side in this report, including a "senior scholar with the nonpartisan First Amendment Center" and "the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education" and "a political science professor." I wonder: Are there no experts with important-sounding titles who support the amendment? That's certainly the impression given.

To its credit, the story quotes Baptist and Catholic leaders who support the amendment. It also reports on opponents in the religious world, including the state's Episcopal bishop, a Jewish official and an Islamic leader. While certainly Baptists and Catholics make up a higher percentage of Missouri's population than the other groups, giving a voice to minorities is an important function of quality journalism.

The story ends on a negative note:

For language that will be enshrined in the Constitution, the most cherished document in a democracy, even Amendment 2's supporters are less than enthusiastic about its wording.

"Every constitutional amendment drafted is drafted by people," said Bahr. "We're dealing with imperfect people who do everything they can to make the best language possible."

Hoey, of the Missouri Catholic Conference, made it clear that "we didn't write the amendment."

"It was presented to us as something to consider, so we looked over the language and didn't see anything that would create a problem," he said, adding, "I would have written it differently."

So, after all that, I'd love your feedback: Is this a biased story? Or is it a fair story about a bad idea? Must a story give equal time to both sides to be balanced? By all means, read the whole thing and weigh in. Please remember, however, to keep the focus on journalism. Political comments and statements will be spiked.

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