American Civil Liberties Union

Long on generalizations, short on concrete sources: CNN tackles a school prayer dispute in Louisiana

Long on generalizations, short on concrete sources: CNN tackles a school prayer dispute in Louisiana

I like some things about a long piece CNN published last week concerning a school prayer dispute in Louisiana:

1. It's conversational and easy to read.

2. It devotes a substantial amount of space to a religion issue.

3. It delves into an interesting church-state case.

But the more of the story I read, the more frustrated I became: This is one of those stories that  falls into the category of "a mile wide and an inch deep."

That is, for all the words used, there is not a whole lot of real meat to the story. Readers hear mostly from a 17-year-old student upset with her school starting the day with the Lord's Prayer.

Please don't misunderstand me: Based on the facts presented by CNN, I can understand that student's concern from a constitutional perspective.

But the journalistic problem is this: The 17-year-old's perspective is weaved around vague, generalized characters who — especially through the first big chunks of the piece — don't have names. They are cardboard-cutout figures lacking the nuance and complexity one would expect to find in real life.

Here's how the piece opens:

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How to stack the deck against Christian teachers expressing their faith at public schools

How to stack the deck against Christian teachers expressing their faith at public schools

"These Christian teachers want to bring Jesus into public schools," declares the clickbait headline on the Washington Post's long, winding profile of the Christian Educators Association International.

Read all 2,400 words, and the Post actually provides quite a bit of firsthand information from the organization itself about its purpose and approach.

But up high, the newspaper seems intent on stacking the deck against the Christian Educators Association and making it clear that these teachers are really, really scary. 

As in: Run for your politically correct lives!

The piece opens with this three-paragraph, 144-word lede featuring the association's executive director:

Finn Laursen believes millions of American children are no longer learning right from wrong, in part because public schools have been stripped of religion. To repair that frayed moral fabric, Laursen and his colleagues want to bring the light of Jesus Christ into public school classrooms across the country — and they are training teachers to do just that.
The Christian Educators Association International, an organization that sees the nation’s public schools as “the largest single mission field in America,” aims to show Christian teachers how to live their faith — and evangelize in public schools — without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on the government establishing or promoting any particular religion.
“We’re not talking about proselytizing. That would be illegal,” said Laursen, the group’s executive director. “But we’re saying you can do a lot of things. . . . It’s a mission field that you fish in differently.”

How does the Post follow up that opening? By doubling down — literally — against the Christian teachers. 

The next seven paragraphs and 288 words explain what's wrong with the organization:

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Why does Washington Post label one religious freedom law 'controversial' and another 'historic?'

Why does Washington Post label one religious freedom law 'controversial' and another 'historic?'

In the media storm over a religious freedom law passed in Indiana, the Washington Post repeatedly used the term "controversial" to describe the measure (examples here, here and here).

However, the Post prefers other words to characterize a gay rights bill passed in Utah, including "landmark" and "historic."

In a story this week, the Post goes behind the scenes of the legislative compromise in Mormon-dominated Utah.

The lede:

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah’s historic compromise aiming to balance gay and religious rights had yet to be unveiled, but on that fateful night last month, it was already unraveling.
A handful of legislators and other negotiators were seated around a squat wooden table in the blue-and-gold Senate lounge, struggling to resolve the remaining — and seemingly irreconcilable — differences between gay rights activists and the influential Mormon Church. Tempers were flaring.
“The tornado and hurricane and typhoon arrived in that room that night and the wind was blowing, and the tree of our whole effort was down at 45 degrees,” recalled Sen. Jim Dabakis (D), the state’s only openly gay legislator.
But the two sides, drawing on an unlikely trust nurtured during years of quiet rapprochement, were able that night to reach a breakthrough.
Within days, they sent a bill to the state legislature — and a message to a politically riven nation that compromise was possible, even on one of the most divisive social issues, even in one of its most conservative states.

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Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

As the media firestorm continues in Indiana, your GetReligionistas have heard from readers asking to know the essential differences between the Indiana law that is under attack and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with bipartisan enthusiasm during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Simply stated, the national RFRA has served as the models for the various state RFRA bills through the years, including the law that -- when he was in the Illinois state senate -- drew the support of Barack Obama.

Reporters covering this story may, in addition to actually studying the contents of the bill, want to study the impact these state bills have had in the 19 states that have adopted the same language. This Washington Post piece, with map, is quite helpful. Have these bills been abused? There may be stories there.

Yes, it's crucial for reporters to actually consider what happens when these bills are used in real cases, with real defendants, in real courts, even in conservative zip codes. Consider, for example, this Texas press release in 2009 in which the American Civil Liberties Union cheered the state's RFRA law:

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pastor Rick Barr who challenged an ordinance passed by the City of Sinton (Barr v. City of Sinton) to close a half-way house for low-level offenders across from the pastor’s church, Grace Christian Fellowship.
“Today’s decision is significant because it is one of the Court’s first cases to affirmatively construe Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas. ...
“This decision sends a strong message to state and local governments in Texas that the Court will not tolerate state action that targets a religious group, whatever their faith,” said Graybill. The court’s ruling upholds the intent of the RFRA to prevent state and local government officials from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion, including religious practices and religiously motivated conduct, without a compelling justification for doing so, she explained.  ”This is a major victory not just for Pastor Barr and Philemon Homes, but for all Texans who cherish religious freedom.”

However, journalists seeking guidance on style issues related to RFRA laws -- should, for example, terms such as "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" be framed with scare quotes -- may want to consult another authoritative source. That would be The New York Times. However, in this case we are talking about the Times of 1993.

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Reuters and religious freedom: When a two-sided news story really only tells one

Reuters and religious freedom: When a two-sided news story really only tells one

At first glance, this week's Reuters story on "a new battleground of religious freedom" appears to be a fair and balanced account.

But upon further review, here's the problem: While the story quotes two sides, it really only reflects the perspective of one.

Consider how the story is framed:

CHICAGO (Reuters) - With the U.S. gay marriage battle looking increasingly like a lost cause for conservative opponents, a last battleground may be their quest to allow people to refuse services to gay men and women on religious grounds.
Some conservative groups have seized on what they consider religious freedom cases, ranging from a Washington state florist to bakers in Colorado and Oregon who are fighting civil rights lawsuits after refusing to provide goods and services to gay couples.
"You'll have more instances where religious liberty will potentially come into conflict with this new redefined way of understanding marriage," said Jim Campbell of the Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal group established to defend religious freedom.
Campbell represented New Mexico's Elane Photography, a small company that was sued after the owner declined to provide services for a same-sex commitment ceremony.
Such cases, experts said, will likely become more common after action by the Supreme Court and federal appeals courts this week extended gay marriage to more than half the states.

Did you catch that? Conservative religious types want to "refuse services" to gays. That's the narrative throughout the story, and certainly, that's how same-sex marriage activists portray the situation.

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