Down in Georgia, here's what the news media's love of 'religious liberty' scare quotes tells you

When my Twitter feed blew up Monday, I knew something big had happened down in Georgia.

The concerns expressed by high-profile voices on the right bordered on apocalyptic — not in a biblical sense but in an imminent disaster kind of way:

As you might expect, Gov. Nathan Deal's decision to veto a religious freedom bill touted by supporters of traditional marriage made national headlines.

My main takeaway from those headlines: Scare quotes here! Scare quotes there! Scare quotes everywhere!: defines scare quotes this way:

A pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense.

In the case of the Georgia bill, most major media insisted on scare quotes around "religious liberty" or "religious freedom":

The Associated Press didn't actually use scare quotes in its headline. The wire service saved them for its lede:

ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's term-limited Gov. Nathan Deal took a stand against his own party and averted threatened boycotts by major corporations on Monday by announcing his veto of a "religious freedom" bill.

USA Today took a similar approach:

Was it the Hollywood threat to boycott Georgia or the NFL threat to withhold a Super Bowl? Gov. Nathan Deal didn't say Monday as he vetoed a bill that a chorus of major studios, sports leagues and business leaders denounced as legalizing discrimination against gay people.
Instead, Deal cited the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the First Amendment, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and the fact that the "religious liberty" bill proposed to fix a problem that didn't exist in Georgia, when he posted his veto message on his website.

In the case of the Georgia news, what do the scare quotes tell readers? Mainly, they serve as signposts to alert the audience that the media organization is skeptical of the term. Such quote marks provide a not-so-subtle editorial comment under the pretense of impartial news coverage. (My GetReligion colleague Jim Davis dubs them sarcasm quotes.)

Despite the scare quotes, some major media reports gave the religious freedom side an opportunity to make its case.

For example, CNN reported:

House Speaker Dennis Ralston, a Republican, called the bill "a good faith compromise" that included "clear anti-discriminatory language."
"It is regrettable that the merits of this measure have been ignored in the days since its passage by critics who had not taken the time to read the bill or understand the legal issues involved," he said.
Timothy Head, executive director of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, issued a statement defending the bill, saying it "simply protects pastors, churches, and faith-based organizations from being forced to violate their religious beliefs. ... We are confident we will ultimately prevail in protecting the free speech and religious expression of all Georgians."

But other media — the Los Angeles Times prominent among them — made no attempt at anything resembling fair, balanced coverage.

The LA Times' headline — with scare quotes around "religious liberty" but not "gay rights" — provides a clear indication of the tilted framing:

Strangely — but not surprisingly — missing from the story: any religious voices at all. Apparently, in a story about "religious liberty," such perspectives don't matter.

That tells you all you need to know.

Georgia State Capitol image via

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