Gay rights, street preachers, and narrative preferences

When I was 12-years-old I developed an unhealthy addiction to Choose Your Own Adventure novels. Perhaps due to my own lack of imagination, I became hooked on the books where an author would frame a story in which I was the hero. (In case you’re too old or too young to remember this Gen-X genre favorite: each story is written from a second-person point of view, with the reader assuming the role of the protagonist and making choices that determine the main character's actions and the plot's outcome.) Although each book could have up to forty possible endings -- some were “good” (e.g., I save the day) and some “bad” (e.g., I die an ignoble death) -- the only endings I considered to be “real” were the ones that aligned with what I’d call my “narrative preference” (i.e., I’m a hero). Now that I’m all grown up, my taste in books have changed, but my bias toward my narrative preferences remains firmly intact. As an editor at a small town newspaper, I found myself framing stories that fit the preferred narrative I had about my local area. Crime stories were treated as deviations from the norm, while heroic actions were presented as every day occurrences among noble citizens. That more people were likely to be mugged than saved from drowning was a fact I never let impose on my preferred “reality.”

Narrative preference is one of the common biases of journalists – and one of the most difficult for us to recognize. When we are accused of being “politically biased” we often scoff and point to our nonpartisan treatment of the issues. But that often misses the point, for it is not the politics that we are being criticized for, but for having narrative preference that differs from our critics.

Take, for example, a recent incident in Seattle, Washington in which two street preachers are assaulted at a gay pride rally. Here is the report by local ABC affiliate, KOMO 4.

If you haven’t heard about this story, it’s because it did not make the national news. But should it have? Normally, I would say that is was just a local crime story. But Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, raises an interesting question:

If two gay rights protesters were beat-up at a Christian rally, wouldn’t that have been front page news and banner headlines across the country? How is it then that this assault is only being treated as a local crime story by the media?

Dr. Burk is right. Indeed, I suspect that if the details of this particular story had been reversed -- street preachers assaulting two gay rights protesters – it would also have made national headlines. So why didn’t this one? Could it be because it doesn’t fit the narrative preference of most mainstream journalists?

The narrative that Christians are bullied by gay rights supporters is considered so laughable that the Daily Show recently aired a segment to laugh at the idea. So what happens when a not-so-funny assault on Christians by gay rights supporters takes place? It's treated as such a anomalous, unrepresentative occurrence that it can be dismissed as un-newsworthy.

I must confess that my own bias against the Christians-in-America-are-persecuted narrative may have initially caused me to dismiss the story. But I believe that for the sake of credibility, mainstream journalism should adhere to its own standards. And unfortunately that standard has been corrupted by the Westboro Baptist Church paradigm.

Fred Phelps and his Westboro cult must have the greatest publicist in America, because anytime they so much as hint that they will be showing up to protest, it makes national news. Media outlets obviously have a preference for whatever Phelps is selling, which is fine. But if a small, unrepresentative group of so-called Christians gets national media attention whenever they so much as protest at a gay rights rally, why isn’t it news when a group of Christians gets assaulted at one?

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