From awful to fantastic: Three lessons in NPR's Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde coverage of religious freedom

It seems like just yesterday that we were bashing NPR's flawed coverage of the religious freedom issue.

Because it was just yesterday:

What a difference a day makes!:

Twenty-four little hours
Brought the sun and the flowers
Where there used to be rain
song by Dinah Washington

It's not often that the same news organization — in this case, NPR — fumbles the ball away in the end zone, then immediately returns a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

However, that's exactly what has transpired in NPR's Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde coverage of the battle pitting gay rights vs. religious liberty.

To refresh everyone's memory, yesterday's post highlighted three problems with NPR's coverage: 1. Scare quotes on "religious freedom." 2. Use of the editorialized phrase "so-called religious freedom bills." 3. Favoritism toward the gay-rights side of the debate.

But this morning, GetReligion reader Darrell Turner pointed me toward a different NPR report covering the same subject matter:

The lede of today's story:

The collision of two core American values — freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination — is prompting a showdown in legislatures and courts across the country.
For some conservatives, religious freedom means the right to act on their opposition to same-sex marriage and other practices that go against their beliefs. LGBT advocates and their allies, meanwhile, say no one in the United States should face discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

Wow!

This latest piece is absolutely fantastic: 1. No scare quotes. 2. No biased language such as "so-called." 3. No favoritism — it clearly explains both sides and fairly represents each side's arguments and concerns.

Perhaps I'm letting the awfulness of yesterday's report influence me, but today's report impresses me as one of the best I've seen on the religious freedom debate: Intelligent sources are quoted on both sides. When one side makes a claim, the other is given an adequate opportunity to respond. Even intricate details that often get short shrift in news coverage — such as the question of freedom of worship vs. freedom of expression — are addressed:

Not all faith leaders are convinced, however, that the push for LGBT rights is jeopardizing the religious freedom of people who hold conservative beliefs about sexuality and marriage.
During a recent appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, Bishop Michael Curry, leader of the Episcopal Church in the United States, said he has witnessed the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world and doesn't see anything comparable in the United States.
"I'm not worried about my religious freedom," Curry said. "I get up and go to church on Sunday morning, ain't nobody stopping me. My freedom to worship is protected in this country, and that's not going to get taken away. I have been in places where that's been infringed. That's not what we're talking about."
Curry's reference only to "freedom to worship," however, missed the point, according to some religious freedom advocates. They say they want the freedom to exercise their faith every day of the week, wherever they are — even if it means occasionally challenging the principle of absolute equality for all.
"We can't use equality to just wipe out one of the [First Amendment] rights," [Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance] says, "or say you can have the right, as long as you just exercise it in church, but not out in life."

Go ahead and read (or listen) to the full report. It's worth your time.

Meanwhile, what lessons can we learn comparing NPR's first story with this latest one? Quickly, I'll suggest three:

1. We (and I certainly include "me"  in that "we") need to be careful not to overgeneralize when discussing major news organizations. That's always a struggle for those of us who do media criticism. Especially when we see the same error or bias more than once from the same organization, we're tempted to say, for example, that NPR "always" puts scare quotes on religious freedom. But NPR — and counterparts such as the New York Times and The Associated Press — are complex organizations involving hundreds of individual reporters and editors. So while we certainly can identify trends in coverage, we need to think twice before using a broad stroke in our criticism.

2. We need to be educated readers. When I hear people say things like, "Read the Washington Post because it's a factual news source that can be trusted," I generally agree. But not every Post story passes that test (this is just one negative example from last week). Someone told me that the Post, for example, publishes 1,000 pieces a day — there's obviously going to be some fluctuation in quality and sourcing in all those stories. That's where it's helpful for readers to know the difference between solid and squishy journalism. Fortunately, there are websites (i.e. GetReligion) focused on helping readers in that regard. (Please forgive the shameless plug.)

3. It doesn't hurt to pay attention to certain bylines. Once you hear the byline on today's NPR story, the quality and fairness of the reporting won't surprise you as much. Tom Gjelten, NPR's excellent Godbeat pro, continues to impress me. When I see his name attached to an NPR report, I am inclined to trust it. The same holds true when I see Sarah Pulliam Bailey's name atop a Washington Post story or Peter Smith's name atop a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story or Jaweed Kaleem's name atop a Los Angeles Times story (and I'm leaving out many other journalists, those who cover religion and more general beats, who fall under that category).

Even with those I've named, don't forget that old journalistic adage: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." It's not just great advice for reporters. Readers, too, benefit from a healthy measure of skepticism.

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