This news isn't fake, but it's flawed: Three problems with NPR's report on religious freedom bills

Well, that didn't last long.

A week after Donald Trump's stunning election as president, I wrote a GetReligion post with this title:

Based on Trump's win, it looks like religious liberty really is a thing — with no scare quotes

In that post, I gave a brief history of biased and lackluster media coverage of religious freedom bills tied to conscience claims by people of faith. (If any of this is new to you, I'd encourage you to take a moment and read that post before proceeding with this one.)

In a nutshell, here's the issue I explored back in November:

Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential election, which was won by a candidate — Donald Trump — who pledged in a letter to Catholics last month to "defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."
It seems that — to many voters — religious freedom was an important issue in the Nov. 8 election. An issue to which many news organizations were tone-deaf, based on their previously mentioned coverage.
So will coverage of this subject improve based on a new president in the White House?

I then cited a newsy, balanced Associated Press story that raised my hopes for better journalism.

I'm not feeling as optimistic, though, after a reader called my attention to a weekend NPR report on religious freedom bills. On the positive side, the NPR piece offers a nice case study in how a news organization that claims "impartiality" ought not to cover the issue.

Here are three problems with NPR's story — honk if you've heard any of these before here at GetReligion:

1. Scare quotes on "religious freedom"

As we've explained once or twice or a zillion times, many major news organizations insist on putting quote marks around terms such as "religious liberty" and "religious freedom." 

As defines scare quotes, they are "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."

So, a few days ago when NPR reported on sanctuary churches housing immigrants and citing religious freedom, that term got no scare quotes. But when NPR covers conscience legislation in Bible Belt states such as Alabama and Mississippi, "religious freedom" always seems to get scare quotes.

And yes, this weekend's online headline relied on scare quotes:

LGBTQ Advocates Fear 'Religious Freedom' Bills Moving Forward In States

Biased much?

2. So-called religious freedom

But can listeners hear scare quotes on the air? Nope, but NPR has that covered, too. 

There's more than one way for a not-so-impartial news report to flag its skepticism:

There are renewed efforts at the state level to pass so-called religious freedom bills. LGBTQ rights advocates believe that's because local lawmakers are anticipating support from the Trump administration.

Here we go again:

The Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's bible" — recommends that "so-called" be used sparingly. As I've suggested before, I see plenty of room for news organizations — NPR in this case — to use it more sparingly. It screams editorialization and bias.

3. Favoritism toward the gay-rights side

Framing is frequently a problem in news coverage of religious freedom legislations and lawsuits.

Here is a typical example with some excellent background that remains relevant:

Overall, the NPR story is framed in a tilted way that presents the issue primarily as LGBT advocates concerned about gay rights as opposed to, you know, people of faith seeking to protect their freedom of conscience.

Strangely, the written version of the NPR report is even more slanted than the audio story. (I have no idea how an NPR story goes from audio to written form, so any theories of mine on the difference between the two would be pure speculation.)

In the written version, the first three sources are all LGBT advocates. But on the audio report, a voice on the other side gets a chance to respond earlier rather than at the end.

Still, both versions suffer from framing bias. It's more obvious in the written report:

In Alabama, there's a bill that allows adoption agencies that are religiously affiliated to hold true to their faith if they don't think same-sex couples should be parents. The psychiatric community has found no evidence that having same-sex parents harms children.

After reading the line about the psychiatric community, I made a note on my printout: "Is that even the point?"

The written story keeps going without a response from the faith side. But in the audio version, NPR immediately goes to a soundbite buried at the end of the written report. Speaking is Rep. Richard Wingo, the Alabama House bill's sponsor:

"It doesn't matter what I think," he says. "If you are a follower of Christ then what matters is what does the word of God say. What does God say about it?"

For those new to GetReligion, let me stress that I am making a case for journalism that treats both sides fairly and gives each an equal opportunity to present its point of view. 

If NPR truly is committed to impartiality, it must work harder to make sure stories such as this one don't favor one side (and generally for NPR, that would be the progressive side).

No, the story critiqued isn't fake news. But it's certainly flawed.

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