Big news report card: Grading coverage of Houston's defeated ordinance on gays, transgenders

If you're a news — or culture war — junkie, you already know the outcome of Tuesday's hotly contested municipal battle in Houston.

Voters in the Texas city of 2.2 million people soundly rejected — or as The Associated Press described it, failed to approve — the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, dubbed "HERO."

As The Wall Street Journal reported:

HOUSTON — In a victory for social conservatives, voters in the nation’s fourth-largest city on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a ballot measure to extend nondiscrimination protections to gay and transgender people.

For insightful analysis of the decision from the right, check out Rod "Friend of this Blog" Dreher's American Conservative post titled "Houston: Ladies Rooms Are For Ladies." For a left-leaning take, consider Atlantic writer Russell Berman's piece on "How Bathroom Fears Conquered Transgender Rights in Houston."

Here at GetReligion, we focus on promoting good, old-fashioned journalism that is fair, accurate and complete.

To that end, let's grade some of the major coverage of Tuesday's vote:

Associated Press: D

In a post last week, I dinged AP for its tilted coverage of the Houston referendum:

In its latest story, AP again frames the issue from the perspective of the supporters — quoting two of them before getting to the opponents who won:

Democratic Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who is gay, blamed the rejection by voters on opponents' "bathroom ordinance" campaign, which she called "fear mongering" and part of an effort to demonize the LGBT community.
"This was a calculated campaign by a small, very determined group of right-wing ideologues and the religious right, and they only know how to destroy and not how to build up," Parker told a crowd of more than 100 people at an election night watch party in downtown Houston.
Maria Gonzalez, an English instructor at the University of Houston, who supported the ordinance and was at the watch party, said she was disappointed by the measure's defeat.
"The wedge issue has always been gay people. The outsiders come in and say they don't want gay and trans people protected," she said.

Houston Chronicle: B

Unlike AP, the hometown newspaper lets the winning side speak first in its front-page story:

Anti-HERO campaign spokesman Jared Woodfill said Tuesday’s results proved the messaging worked, calling it a “David vs. Goliath” battle.
“If anything is scary about this ordinance, it’s the truth,” Woodfill said. “All we did is a identify a very scary reality, it wasn’t a scare tactic, it was a dangerous truth that Mayor Parker tried to hide from the public.”

My reason for not giving the top grade: I wish the Chronicle had interviewed actual voters about why they cast their ballots the way they did.

* Los Angeles Times: C

This story isn't much better than the AP version.

Like the wire service report, this one seems more sympathetic to the supporters who lost than the opponents who won, starting at the top:

HOUSTON — Houston voters rejected a controversial ordinance Tuesday that would have barred discrimination against gays and transgender people, an outcome that came after an 18-month battle pitting gay rights advocates against those who believed they were defending religious liberty.

Those who believed they were defending religious liberty. Does that language sound editorialized to anybody but me?

But I gave the Times a passing grade because I believed it did a better job of letting the opponents respond to the claims of fear mongering, scare tactics, etc., from the mayor:

“You want to talk about scare tactics? That's what she's doing,” said Paul Simpson, chairman of the county's Republican Party, adding that voters’ resounding rejection of the ordinance “showed the citizens of Houston think it's unnecessary.”

New York Times: B-plus.

No, I didn't grade down just because the Old Gray Lady's nearly 50-word lede left me out of breath:

HOUSTON — A yearlong battle over gay and transgender rights that turned into a costly, ugly war of words between this city’s lesbian mayor and social conservatives ended Tuesday as voters repealed an anti-discrimination ordinance that had attracted attention from the White House, sports figures and Hollywood celebrities.

Actually, the Times does a pretty nice job of reflecting both sides and providing important context (the exception being the lack of mention of the city attempting to subpoena certain pastors' sermons, which helped rally opponents).

While most media quoted the mayor questioning the legitimacy of the bathroom predator concerns, the Times included an argument on the other side that I didn't see elsewhere:

“The mayor has never been able to produce a shred of evidence that’s credible of any need for this ordinance, other than everybody else is doing it,” said Dave Welch, the executive director of the Houston Area Pastor Council.

Reuters: C-plus

Reuters' report is pretty concise (read: short and sketchy).

Then again, it's a wire service story serving an international audience, so maybe the idea was to hit the high points — and quickly.

I did find this interesting: Reuters referred both to "conservative Christians" and "liberal groups and business leaders."

In the other five stories critiqued here, the term "conservative" was used a total of 14 times in reference to the ordinance's opponents.

The number of times the supporters were tagged as "liberals?" Zero.

Wall Street Journal: A

From the beginning, the Journal plays the story down the middle.

Yes, the mayor is quoted first — but then the co-chairman of the main group that opposed the ordinance immediately gets equal time.

The big thing is this: There's no hint of bias in this story. The Journal provides all the relevant facts, context and quotes in an impartial manner, which is what quality journalism does.

And my favorite part of this story? The Journal actually talked to some real voters — as opposed to the familiar talking heads — and let them explain their thinking:

Across Houston on Tuesday, residents told of how the furious debate over the issue had influenced their vote.
In the affluent River Oaks neighborhood, Cindy Seligmann said she had been torn over the measure and doubted it would actually cause much harm. But Ms. Seligmann said she ultimately was swayed by the television commercials and decided to vote against it.
“We’re a socially liberal family. But then throwing the bathroom thing in there, it just messed up the whole proposition,” she said. “If you have a boy part you go to the boy’s bathroom, if you have a girl part you go to the girl’s bathroom.”
Outside Hogg Middle School in the city’s Heights neighborhood, where hipster coffee shops and thrift stores sit near old bungalows, Belinda Ybarra said she voted for the measure. Ms. Ybarra said she thought opponents had exaggerated the measure’s potential impacts.
“I think people are making more of a big deal than what it really is,” she said. “I know people say they don’t want men in women’s restrooms. But what man is going to go in a women’s restroom unless it’s a man that thinks he’s a woman.”

See what I mean? News stories are so much better when they contain authentic nuance. Nice job, Wall Street Journal.

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