'Shame List' sequel: Why reporting both sides is not propaganda but — yes — journalism

So, I dinged the Charlotte Observer pretty hard yesterday.

I criticized the North Carolina newspaper's biased coverage of a "Shame List" of religious colleges and universities that espouse traditional biblical beliefs on sexuality and gender identity.

As I noted, the paper served more as a stenographer than a reporter in its copy-and-paste coverage of the gay-rights organization's publicity-seeking list.

Welp, that post sparked a lively discussion.

Some of those comments strike at the heart of what we do here at GetReligion. So I decided to highlight that dialogue to make sure readers didn't miss it. At least five questions emerged that I'll tackle below.

1. Is the "Shame List" news?

I avoided that question in my original post, choosing to focus on the coverage itself. However, a reader named Linda felt compelled to suggest this:

Of course, the "shame list" is news. It is also very helpful for prospective students and parents to know what kind of school their children might want (or want not) to consider. The Campus Pride shame list consists entirely of institutions that have applied for religious exemptions to Title IX nondiscrimination requirements.

The distinction I would make is that the "Shame List" is Campus Pride's interpretation of the Title IX exemptions. If the Title IX exemptions themselves are the newsworthy component, why not focus on them instead, which the Wall Street Journal did in its coverage back in April?

2. Is there an "other side" of this story?

Linda, who seems more interested in the issue than the journalism, argued not:

There is no "other side" of the story. Surely, Brigham Young is not going to say that they do not have an exemption, are they?
It used to be difficult to obtain information about which colleges and universities had applied for these exemptions and on why basis. One had to file a Freedom of Information request for each insitution. Now, however, the Department of Education has made all this information available on a searchable database. Facts are facts. And it is the responsibility of journalists to report facts.

I responded to Linda:

The "other side" doesn't relate to whether universities have sought Title IX exemptions that allow them to abide by their religious precepts. That information is, as you point out, public record.
However, the newspaper quotes the head of Campus Pride as saying these universities "use religion as a tool for cowardice and discrimination" and perpetuate "religion-based bigotry." Those statements deserve and demand a response, not to mention some specific information rather than broad claims from the accuser.

Reader "CCCU Pride" certainly thinks there's another side that the Charlotte Observer ignored:

But Campus Pride — an organization with three employees according to tax documents — says this is a new "Shame List" with more than just schools with the Title IX exemptions. The list also includes schools these three activists don't like for some reason or other. For example, Concordia-Irvine is shamed not because of policies, but because they lobbied to prevent a law that would have penalized them for their religious beliefs.
It seems a journalist would ask more about the methodology.

3. Are the "shamed" universities secretive about what they believe and require of students?

Not according to our own tmatt, who commented:

First of all, the vast majority of Christian colleges and universities are VERY open about their doctrinal covenants and even make them a key element of their recruiting process.
Second, are you aware that private colleges -- secular and religion, liberal and conservative -- are private associations protected by the First Amendment? They are allowed to teach and protect the doctrines on which they are founded, doctrines that people voluntarily endorse in writing when they sign on to work or study there. This takes place at liberal schools as well as conservative.

4. Is it important to disseminate the details concerning institutions' Title IX exemptions?

Linda said "yes":

But information about their beliefs and practices is important news that journalists need to disseminate, especially to prospective students and parents.
You seem to think that newspapers are supposed to report about these colleges only in the most positive light. That is not journalism, that is propaganda.

I said "yes," too, but I disagreed with the notion that a newspaper can do that without talking to the accused or actually quoting from the Title IX exemption letters submitted by colleges and universities.

5. Is reporting both sides of the story "propaganda" and not "journalism?"

Of course not. Propaganda is regurgitating an advocacy group's press release without any attempt to commit actual journalism. (Hello again, Charlotte Observer.)

I'll let tmatt take it from here:

Why is requesting coverage that includes quotes from articulated, qualified people on both sides of a public debate the same thing as saying that we think ...
" ....newspapers are supposed to report about these colleges only in the most positive light"?
Treating both sides with respect is not a call for propaganda -- but the opposite. It's a call for journalism.

There you go.

If you missed yesterday's discussion, by all means, weigh in now.

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