Dirty words? Conservatives, liberals and accurate descriptions when reporting on religious freedom

Everybody loves a sequel, right?

I hope so because this is my third post of the week on the same topic.

But I really believe the information I'm going to share is relevant. Even better, it's at the heart of GetReligion's mission to promote quality news coverage of religion.

Before I get to that, though, please hang with me for just a moment. I need to help everybody who might have missed the first two posts catch up.

1. I began the week with a, shall we say, negative critique of NPR's coverage of the religion freedom issue:

2. But overnight, NPR suddenly "got religion" in a big way, which is to say that Godbeat pro Tom Gjelten tackled the same subject matter in a much better fashion:

My follow-up post gushed all over Gjelten's piece on the religious freedom debate:

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.

So why do a third post? Because of the excellent discussion generated by a reader's question about Gjelten's story.

The question came from Anton Karidian:

I agree that today's story on NPR is superior than yesterday's, with many reporting techniques in its favor. However, I have one quibble: Gjelten consistently identifies religious freedom advocates as "conservatives" but not once identifies an LGBT advocate as a "liberal" or "progressive".

I replied:

Thanks for that insightful comment, Anton.
Charles Haynes, one of the religious freedom advocates quoted, certainly wouldn't be characterized as a conservative, I don't think.

And GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly chimed in:

Of course, support for religious liberty and First Amendment rights in general used to be one of the defining characteristics of liberalism. The press needs to remember that there are old-fashioned liberals -- including many who support same-sex marriage -- who remain strong defends of religious liberty, even for those whose views they reject.
See this reference to the views of Andrew Sullivan, for example.

Finally, Gjelten took the time to respond:

This is unfair. I draw a distinction between those biblical conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage on the basis of their religious beliefs and those religious freedom advocates, whether conservative or not, who support the right of people to oppose same-sex marriage. I call the former group conservative but religious freedom advocates, like Charles Haynes, may or may not themselves be conservative, and I think I was careful not to conflate the two. I never said or implied that all religious freedom advocates are conservative.

Obviously, the conservative vs. liberal terminology did not stand out to me when I read the story originally. Perhaps I am just accustomed to seeing the sides characterized that way. As a reminder, this was the opening on Gjelten's piece:

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.

As I read it, Karidian's criticism is that a label ("conservatives") is applied to one side of the debate but not the other.  Gjelten, meanwhile, defends his description of religious conservatives but fails to explain, unless I'm missing it, why he doesn't label LGBT advocates as "liberals." 

What might be a possible solution, if one sees a problem? One might be to change "conservatives" to "people of faith" in that second paragraph. Elsewhere in the story, perhaps a more specific identifier — such as "evangelicals" — might be applied to those pushing religious freedom legislation. Of course, the term "evangelicals" brings its own set of complexities as far as defining exactly who falls under that umbrella.

What do you think, dear reader? Was the original language fair and accurate? Do you see a need for any tweaking in how such labels are applied? Might one's response be tied, to some degree, on whether that person sees "conservatives" or "liberals" or both as dirty words?

By all means, please join the conversation by commenting below or tweeting us at @GetReligion.

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