Weekend think piece: What do journalists mean when they use the label 'moderate'?

Soon after the founding of GetReligion -- we’re talking Feb. 1, 2004 -- the leaders of The New York Times did a remarkable and candid thing.

Responding to a series of stunning setbacks (see the classic book “Hard News” by Seth Mnookin), including a plagiarism scandal that forced the resignation of the Gray Lady’s top editors, the newspaper set up an independent panel to investigate what went wrong. The result was a document called “Preserving our Readers’ Trust” that, in my opinion, is just as relevant today as it was when it was released in 2005.

A major theme in the panel’s work was the need for more cultural and intellectual diversity in the Times newsroom -- especially when covering complex topics such as religion. For example, when most of the professionals in a newsroom share what they believe is an urban, tolerant, informed view of the world, they may not see their own blind spots.

Consider, for example, the power of labels. Here is a passage from the Times report that your GetReligionistas have shared in the past. This is not the only passage in the document that links religion-news coverage with this issue and others related to it:

Too often we label whole groups from a perspective that uncritically accepts a stereotype or unfairly marginalizes them. As one reporter put it, words like moderate or centrist "inevitably incorporate a judgment about which views are sensible and which are extreme." We often apply "religious fundamentalists," another loaded term, to political activists who would describe themselves as Christian conservatives.
We particularly slip into these traps in feature stories when reporters and editors think they are merely presenting an interesting slice of life, with little awareness of the power of labels. We need to be more vigilant about the choice of language not only in the text but also in headlines, captions and display type.

The term "moderate" is especially crucial when used in coverage of religion. Ask Muslims what they think of some of the labels that are often attached to their community.

For example, consider this story that I shared in a post two years ago, concerning a trip that I made to Prague to speak to the newsroom staff of Radio Liberty. The topic was rather predictable -- their efforts to improve news coverage.

... Once I was there it became clear to me that some members of the staff wanted me to discuss a much more specific topic. Thus, I ended up in a small room with a circle of Muslim journalists linked to radio broadcasts into Afghanistan and surrounding regions. The key question: Why do American journalists insist on using "fundamentalist" and "moderate" as labels to describe Muslims, since these are terms never used by members of that faith? Don't they know these labels are offensive?
One journalist said, and I paraphrase: Do Americans basically use "fundamentalist" to describe Muslims that they don't like and "moderate" to describe Muslims that they do like?

That is, of course, precisely what journalists mean about 95 percent of the time when they use the term "fundamentalist."

Remember that rather blunt quote from philosopher Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame? He once quipped that, among academics and other cultural elites:

... "Fundamentalist" has become a "term of abuse or disapprobation" that most often resembles the casual semi-curse, "sumbitch."
"Still, there is a bit more to the meaning. ... In addition to its emotive force, it does have some cognitive content, and ordinarily denotes relatively conservative theological views," noted Plantinga, in an Oxford Press publication. "That makes it more like 'stupid sumbitch.' ... Its cognitive content is given by the phrase 'considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.' "

This brings me back to "moderate" and its use in public debates about religion. This was the topic of a must-read essay the other day in the conservative interfaith journal First Things. A sample:

The mainstream media ... frequently describe politicians who endorse every aspect of the culture of death and ongoing sexual revolution as “moderates.” It’s not difficult to understand why: Doing so helps sanitize the enormous evil of abortion and promote a do-as-you-please morality -- exactly what the media desire.
In the religious sphere, “moderate” is frequently applied -- albeit inconsistently and for different reasons -- to Catholic bishops who speak out for social justice, but who are also strongly pro-life and pro–traditional marriage. Again, the reasons are obvious: Championing the supposed “moderate” side of Catholicism will, as the media see it, delegitimize “conservatism” within the Church, and thus weaken the Church’s repressive and outdated moral teachings.

The hook for this essay was the pope's appointment of a "moderate" Catholic leader -- Dallas Bishop Kevin Farrell -- to head the new department addressing issues linked to "Laity, Families and Life." The term "moderate" dominated the media discussions. Read on:

As soon as Farrell’s appointment was announced, the media began describing it as indicative of a “more moderate direction for Vatican offices responsible for hot-button, culture war issues such as abortion, contraception, marriage and divorce.” He has been depicted as a moderate and a “Francis bishop,” in contrast to the “cultural warrior” bishops appointed by Francis’s predecessors.
But there is no evidence that Bishop Farrell has any intention of backing away from these vital “culture war” issues in his new post. The facts reveal just the reverse. In 2001, St. John Paul II appointed Farrell an auxiliary bishop to the Washington Archdiocese; Pope Benedict XVI appointed him to lead the Diocese of Dallas in 2007. If anything, Francis is following the lead of his predecessors in recognizing the episcopal talents of Bishop Farrell -- not creating bishops in his own supposed image.
Furthermore, and contrary to what has been reported, Bishop Farrell is no one’s idea of a cultural and moral appeaser. In 2008, shortly before the presidential election that year, Bishop Farrell and Bishop Kevin Vann, then of Fort Worth, issued a powerful pastoral letter, describing abortion as “the defining moral issue, not only today, but of the last 35 years.” The letter was hailed by pro-life groups throughout the world and widely seen as a warning to Catholics about supporting Barack Obama. It led to protests outside the Dallas chancery.

Read it all. For journalists, the issue is not whether to agree or to disagree with all of the conclusions in the First Things piece.

The key point is to think about this labeling issue -- again -- and to ponder the warnings in that amazing -- still -- New York Times self-study document.

So readers, what do you think the word "moderate" means in most mainstream journalism reports?

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