News alert: Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda; journalists might consider that

News alert: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda.

For those paying attention, that advocacy group's name provides a clear indication of that agenda.

Why am I stating the obvious? Because in reading some recent news reports, journalists seem to treat the Freedom From Religion Foundation as if it's an unbiased expert source on church-and-state legal questions.

Let's consider, for example, the Washington Post's recent story on a high school football coach who baptized a player:

The above tweet is from the Post reporter who produced the story. So in other words, the journalist agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation that what's happening is "unconstitutional."

Except that the tweet is inaccurate. The coach didn't baptize the player at a public school, according to the Post's own story:

The Newton school district, however, is sticking by Coach Smith’s actions. In a statement, the school said that the baptism happened off school property — outside a dentist’s office, about a block away from the school, Superintendent Virginia Young told The Post. “The District feels this is a private matter of choice for that student. Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act,” the school’s statement said.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi also notes that the baptism didn't occur at a public school:

When Newton High senior Garrick Alford saw Ryan Smith in the school’s cafeteria one day in early September, the middle linebacker informed the Tigers’ head football coach he wanted to discuss two things, as Smith recalls.
The first subject was football-related. Alford wanted to run the ball. In response, Smith said they would work on that during practice.
The second topic was unrelated to football. Alford, as Smith recalls, wanted to be saved.
After conversations over the course of the following couple of weeks, Alford decided in Smith’s office at the school that he wanted to be baptized.
Smith then asked Alford which church he wanted to be baptized in. Alford had an alternative preference. He wanted to be baptized outside and surrounded by his football teammates.
That’s how on an afternoon last month Smith ended up dunking Alford in a plastic tub of water, baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit outside a dentist office across the road from where the Tigers practice.

The Post headline, meanwhile, refers to "Baptisms on the football field." I'll admit that it makes for nice clickbait. But how is that headline accurate for a baptism that took place neither on public school property nor "on the football field?"

But that twisting of facts reflects the Post's apparent willingness to accept the Freedom From Religion Foundation's point of view as the only one that matters in this story. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter claiming that "This appearance of school sponsorship of a religious message violates the Establishment Cause of the First Amendment,” so that must be the case, right?

Otherwise, might the newspaper contact a legal advocate who defends the religious freedom of school employees — a group such as the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Liberty Institute perhaps? Yes, those groups have an agenda, too. However, if the Post's agenda is fair, balanced journalism, as opposed to taking sides and declaring that the coach's action is "unconstitutional," then quoting one of those groups, too, would make sense.

In addition, the Post might contact independent church-state experts — law professors versed on religious freedom, for example — to weigh in from a more neutral position. Questions could include: Is this an open-and-shut case like the Freedom From Religion Foundation maintains? Or is it a complicated matter with competing rights on the part of the coach, students and others?

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that journalists today are producing so many quick-hit stories trying to get clicks that they miss the normal editing process that would catch some of the obvious issues I've highlighted above.

That seems to be case in the story's final paragraph:

Smith, who conducted the baptism, and his wife Kristi, who posted the video online, both spoke to The Post briefly on Friday but were not immediately available to discuss the baptism. The video has been shared on Facebook nearly 2,000 times and viewed more than 109,000 times.

If they "spoke briefly," what exactly did they say? Give the reporter credit for contacting the coach and his wife, but the description above provides no helpful information at all for readers. If they simply answered the phone and declined to comment, why not say that? 

Image via Facebook video of baptism

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