Want balanced coverage? USA Today shows how it's done

A few weeks ago a study on news media coverage by the Pew Research Center showed that stories with more statements supporting same-sex marriage outweighed those with more statements opposing it by a margin of roughly 5-to-1. While the findings weren’t a surprise to most people who read news stories I suspect it came as a shock to some of the folks who write them. While almost everyone in the media will admit they are biased, most professional news reporters are bothered by the idea that their bias is undermining their work as journalists. The Pew study thus served as both a wake-up call and a warning that more balance is needed.

Over the next few days, GetReligionistas will be seeing who learned that lesson as we examine the coverage of religion and same-sex marriage in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions. Tmatt got us started by showing how The Baltimore Sun missed an opportunity, but I want to show an example of a news outlet doing it right.

With a title like “Religious leaders divided on gay-marriage decisions” you normally expect (re: Pew) to see one religious leader -- most likely a Catholic bishop -- state their opposition while two to four representatives -- most likely mainline Protestant pastors -- express their support. But the feature by USA Today is not only more balanced than usual but also covers a broader range of the religious spectrum.

Here is a list of sources quoted and where they stand:

• Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (opposed)

• The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (oppose)

• Rev. J. Bennett Guess of the United Church of Christ (support)

• Jan Uhrbach, a rabbi of a synagogue in the Conservative Branch of American Judaism (support)

• The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America (oppose)

• Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church (support)

• Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptists' Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (oppose)

• Rev. Greg Bullard of Covenant of the Cross [a nondenominational church] (support)

• Rev. Jasmine Beach-Ferarra, executive director of the Campaign for Southern Equality (support)

Four quotes by the opposition and five by those supporting the decision is not exactly parity, but it’s more balance than you are likely to find in most news coverage.

Including a Muslim imam and a representative from a predominantly African-America denomination would have been ideal, but USA Today deserves credit for reaching out to such a diverse group of religious leaders.

Unfortunately, the praise is mixed with one significant criticism. The article makes a basic factual error by claiming,

In the first decision, United States v. Windsor, the court struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) as unconstitutional.

The court struck down one provision of DOMA – not the entire statute. That’s an important distinction, but one that many journalists failed to make in their reporting.

Overall, though, USA Today deserves praise for providing a model example of how to report on controversial decisions: quote both sides, let them explain their reasoning, and don’t editorialize. If USA Today can get it right, what excuse do other media outlets have for getting it wrong?

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