Three questions for Dallas Morning News re: slanted coverage of traditional wedding venue

It’s a tough time for the Dallas Morning News. Earlier this month, the Texas newspaper laid off 43 people in its newsroom and other parts of the company, citing declines in revenue. (Strangely, the same paper posted ads later in the month seeking to hire a city hall reporter and an aviation reporter.)

Here at GetReligion, we frequently lament the demise of what was — once upon a time — one of the nation’s premier news organizations for covering religion, with a handful of full-time Godbeat pros and a weekly stand-alone faith section.

I remain a paid subscriber, even though the Dallas Morning News’ skimpy and often uninformed (read: no religion beat specialist) coverage of the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s massive faith community repeatedly frustrates me.

The paper’s publisher recently acknowledged the problem:

We've heard from many readers that the role of religion in society deserves more coverage. So we're also launching a new initiative called Faith Forum, articles focusing on how faith informs major decisions in people's lives. A panel of North Texas faith leaders has agreed to advise on topics and contribute articles. The essays will not appear on any particular schedule, but as news warrants.

At the same time, the reference to “essays” gives the impression that the Dallas Morning News thinks it can cover religion with reader-submitted opinion pieces as opposed to news stories produced by actual journalists.

After that long introduction, let me get to the point of this post: Wednesday’s Metro & Business cover (yes, they’re one section after the recent belt-tightening) featured a story with this print headline:

Venue turns away gay couple, cites God’s design for marriage

That sounds like a religion story, right?

Actually, it’s a puff piece that seems most concerned with telling only one side of the story. Guess which one?

The lede:

Aaron Lucero and his fiance, Jeff Cannon, were driving home a few weekends ago from a same-sex marriage ceremony at a Dallas church "on a high" from the celebration, Lucero said. Then, his husband-to-be got an email that devastated them.

The Dallas couple were told Jan. 19 that they wouldn’t be welcome to get married at the Venue at Waterstone in Celina, because the venue doesn’t host gay weddings. Lucero and Cannon had been set to tour the venue, about an hour north of Dallas, the next day.

“The instant reaction was disbelief. Like, seriously? It's 2019,” Lucero said. “The Supreme Court has already said that gay marriage is legal. What is the issue?”

Here are my three questions for the Dallas Morning News:

1. Did you attempt to contact the Venue’s owners and give them an opportunity to share their side of the story?

Yes, the article quotes briefly from an email that the owner, Lyle Wise, sent to Cannon and a statement Wise gave to a local television station. But did the Dallas Morning News itself actually contact Wise? If not, why not?

Related to the other side of the story, the wedding chapel’s website states its “Beliefs” under that heading on its home page:

The Venue Waterstone was birthed by a vision from God 27 years ago. As with any family business, it is a direct extension of our family. Because of that, it inherently reflects our personal beliefs, convictions, and ethics. Our intention is to serve others as Christ has served us.

We are blessed at every wedding and reception to view an example of the most beautiful picture in the universe, the marriage of the bride and groom. To us as Christians, it holds the ultimate meaning and symbolism. Its design and ordination are instructed by His very words, for the testimony of His saints.

Any man and woman desiring to join together and make public this most sacred covenant, whether or not they share in our beliefs, are welcome to join together and celebrate at The Venue at Waterstone.

Is this a new statement? Or did the gay couple miss it or ignore it? Is there any chance that the gay couple’s attempt to schedule a wedding there is an ambush designed to generate just this kind of negative publicity for the business? Did the reporter ask such questions? If so, what were the responses? If not, why not?

2. Your article mentions the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. Are you also aware of religious freedom cases across the country involving wedding chapel owners, photographers and florists?

It seems that some acknowledgment of this tension nationwide — and the fact that this Texas scenario didn’t happen in a vacuum — might be warranted.

For example, the Supreme Court ruled just last year in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who cited his conscience in declining to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. Related to that, much has been written about Religious Freedom Restoration Act distinctions between broad discrimination against a class of people and very, very narrow acts of conscience linked to longstanding religious doctrines and religious rites.

Concerning wedding chapels specifically, former New York Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein had a fantastic story before the 2016 presidential election on an Iowa couple caught in a firestorm over its refusal to rent its facility to a gay couple. Sound familiar?

3. If a person in your coverage area is a Christian who adheres to traditional doctrines (and there are many such people in Dallas-Fort Worth), what reason would you give that person for subscribing to your publication?

This is why I ask: If coverage of issues involving that person’s beliefs is going to be biased, tone-deaf and lacking in historical and theological context, why should that person pay for the privilege of reading it?

A related question: Is there any chance that imbalanced treatment of social and religious issues on your news pages is contributing to your readership decline?

I mean, I’m a big Texas Rangers fan, so I sometimes tell myself that my money goes to paying your baseball writer.

But could you try just a little harder to reflect — and respect — the big chunk of your potential readership who would identify with the wedding chapel’s owners and want to hear directly from them and learn about their specific faith, feelings and beliefs?

Please don’t misunderstand: I’m not suggesting that you not quote the gay couple or give them a full, fair opportunity to share their experience and concerns. I’m just saying: Hey, why not commit an act of journalism and afford the same privilege to the other side, too?

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