Just what's so 'controversial' about that Indiana religious freedom bill passed this week?

Today's word of the day: "controversial."

If you've seen the headlines, ledes and tweets related to a religious freedom bill passed by Indiana lawmakers this week, you've likely seen that adjective attached to it:

Monday's lede from the Washington Post:

A controversial religious freedom bill that would protect business owners who want to decline to provide services for same-sex couples was passed by Indiana’s State House today, the latest in a larger battle over same-sex marriage and rights.
The bill reflects a national debate over the dividing line between religious liberty and anti-gay discrimination. The question of whether the religious rights of business owners also extend to their for-profit companies has been a flashpoint as part of a larger debate over same-sex marriage. For instance, the bill would protect a wedding photographer who objects to shooting a same-sex wedding.
The Indiana House voted 63 to 31 to approve a hot-button bill that will likely become law, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence said he plans to sign the legislation when it lands on his desk. The state Senate’s version of the bill would prevent the government from “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest and is doing so in the least restrictive means.
Supporters say the measure supports religious freedom while opponents fear discrimination against LGBT people. The push towards this kind of legislation comes as same-sex marriage becomes legal across the country. In September, a federal court ruling struck down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and other states.

We've previously tackled the typical journalistic framing on this topic (e.g., is "deny service" or "refuse service" really the right way to describe a baker who declines to make a cake for a same-sex wedding? Or does such wording favor one side of a debate pitting gay rights vs. religious freedom?). The Post, by the way, deserves praise for the relevant, easy-to-understand example of the wedding photographer in the second paragraph.

Rather than revisit the service issue again today, however, my question relates to the framing of the bill as "controversial."

The Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's Bible" — offers this guidance concerning that term:

An overused word; avoid it.

Also in the stylebook:

All issues are controversial. A noncontroversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.

So why do so many news reports refer to the Indiana bill as "controversial" (with AP being a notable exception)?

Is use of that term a simple matter of stale, clichéd writing? Or does it signify concern on the part of the media organization — a sort of red flag to the audience?

A mainstream journalist involved in the coverage responded that the bill is "definitely controversial." That journalist allowed that a different term — such as "divisive" — might be suitable but maintained, "I don't think controversial is untrue."

On the other hand, Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, sees bias in such wording:

A bill in Indiana that was passed by a 4-to-1 margin in the state senate, a 2-to-1 margin in the state house and that will likely be signed by the governor in short order would more properly be described as “popular” than “controversial” if the terms mean anything. AP is obviously correct that the word is overused. But it should add “frequently abused” and “misused” if it looks honestly at how these freedom protection bills and laws are being covered.
“Controversial” seems to be defined now as “anything the elite institutions don’t like.”
You didn’t see “controversial” attached to: the passage of Obamacare (it was “historic”), the Supreme Court striking down DOMA (it was a “historic victory”), Obama’s executive order on immigration (it was “an appeal to a nation’s compassion”), or the PC(USA) spiraling further into apostasy (it was a “favorable vote” and “monumental”). You get the point.

Scott obviously is an advocate with strong opinions on one side of the debate.

Nonetheless, I believe he makes an important point concerning journalistic framing: Words matter.

Media truly wanting to provide impartial reporting must be extra-careful that the adjectives they choose don't signal — either intentionally or unintentionally — an association with a particular side's point of view.

Is the Indiana bill controversial? It depends on which side you ask.

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