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Two Utah State University journalism students, aided by their professor, unleashed what can only be termed a one-sided assault on both BYU and its football program published in (Salt Lake) City Weekly, two other alternative weeklies in Oregon and Florida, and USU-based Utah Public Radio.
If this were a football game, surely the ref would call a “targeting” penalty on the stories which appeared between Aug. 26-29. The NCAA football rulebook says targeting occurs when a player “takes aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with forcible contact that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball.” In this case the forcible verbal tackle goes beyond the pale of fair and ethical journalism. It’s also an attack on any college with a faith-based mission or moral restrictions such as BYU’s Honor Code.
The gist of this exposé by journalism students Carter Moore and Kat Webb mentored by associate professor Matthew LaPlante goes like this: Since BYU enjoys a federal religious exemption to enforce its Honor Code that restricts homosexuality, it is therefore discriminatory. In addition, because LGTBQ students at BYU are not “allowed” to get married while straight students are, it is therefore doubly discriminatory in light of the recent Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Because public university football teams have anti-discrimination clauses with vendors, they should also invoke by such clauses and stop making lucrative contracts with BYU. The report also draws in Nike and ESPN, shaming them for promoting BYU while espousing their own non-discrimination policies.
More than problems with its core question, it can be seen as slanted in a larger light of the current climate of culture war, identity politics and polarized news. Terry Mattingly, editor of the “Getting Religion” blog and long-time commentator about journalistic coverage of religion, said this about the article: “It’s basically is an attempt to remove doctrinally defined colleges and universities from the academic mainstream,”
In the top of their story, the Aggie trio get right to their objective: “As the 2019 college football season begins, University of Utah and Utah State University players, coaches, athletics officials and fans once again have an opportunity to take a stand against prejudice.”
Mind you, this isn’t an interviewed source saying “stand against prejudice,” these are journalists who say there is an opportunity to take action. These writers unabashedly take sides. That’s not balanced journalism, that’s biased advocacy. By contrast, another news organization, with a different bent, could sound this alarm: “BYU’s religious freedom is being threatened, it’s your opportunity to take a stand.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle and good journalism ought to seek that middle ground.
It should be noted that alternative weeklies, like the (Salt Lake) City Weekly, Creative Loafing in Tampa and Eugene Weekly in Oregon, where this story appeared, are known for this brand of advocacy journalism. Alternative weeklies often pride themselves in storytelling with no claims of objectivity or fairness. In this high-stakes story, the tradition of the alternative press is no excuse for one-sided writing, errors and omissions.
At the same time, Utah Public Radio broadcast a version of this story on air and on its website. UPR has a tradition of solid, fair reporting under the “public radio” brand. Unfortunately, while this story may fit the advocacy tradition of some alternative weeklies, it certainly doesn’t pass muster for the ethics of National Public Radio because it failed to include legitimate diverse voices. Here’s an excerpt of the NPR code that explains exactly what’s wrong with this story and the consequences for not following these ethical guidelines:
“But errors of omission and partial truths can inflict great damage on our credibility, and stories delivered without the context to fully understand them are incomplete. Our journalism includes diverse voices that reflect our society and divergent views that contribute to informed debate.”
By comparison, here’s a 2016 story from veteran Salt Lake Tribune religion reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack on a similar topic that could have served as a model for the USU report. Her lead paragraph, much more accurate and fair, reads: “All sides agree that discrimination is at the root of the battle over whether Brigham Young University should be excluded from the Big 12 athletic conference over the Provo school’s gay policies. They just differ over who is facing discrimination.”
To be sure, the USU article is correct in one area — there is likely no legal means that BYU football can use to force other teams to play them in its independent status. Being part of a conference would create different obligations, such as BYU basketball’s membership in the West Coast Conference does. However, there’s little discussion in the City Weekly article about why teams might choose to continue to play BYU other than to imply is simply wrong and unjust to do so.
Here’s one source quoted in the Stack article who could have provided such balance to this report. Charles Haynes, a former vice president of the Religious Freedom Center in Washington D.C. said, “There is little conversation in this country across this divide and little effort to find common ways to talk about this that accommodates both sides. . . I believe, in our public life together, there needs to be room for all people to be treated fairly…and also for religious schools to participate in a sports association.” LaPlante and company might be surprised to know Haynes is a frequent and outspoken advocate for the balance of both LGBT rights and the rights of religious groups.
Instead of real expertise, readers and listeners got an article filled with unsourced emotion- and value-laden words and cute catch phrases meant to provoke, such as: “Being gay is not a choice. Playing football against BYU is.”
For example, the article opens with 14 Wyoming black football players refusing to play a game with BYU in Laramie 50 years ago. It was part of a protest by athletics against The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ policy banning black men to participate in its priesthood. It was a decision by a Wyoming coach, not BYU. The article then inaccurately conflates church policy and campus policy and practice of the time.
That account is short on historical facts and long on Latter-day Saint tropes. The story doesn’t mention that BYU was scrutinized by athletic conference officials and other university fact-finding teams during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. One group of visiting officials reported that BYU wasn’t discriminatory to blacks, but was culturally inept at dealing with African-Americans. The school made clear and concerted efforts to draw clear lines between church policy and equal treatment of students on campus.
The discrimination trope gets extended by the Aggie reporters:
“And at the center of the issue, just as it was 40 years ago, is BYU. The LDS church—often called the Mormon church, although its leaders have recently abandoned that nickname—officially ended its racist policy in 1978 when black men were allowed in its priesthood. But the church and its flagship university weren’t done with discrimination.”
And, of course, there’s one very important difference between the Wyoming 14 example and Honor Code prohibitions of homosexuality and church doctrine that the article glosses over. The federal government has granted exemptions to places like BYU and Notre Dame, which has a similar prohibition against sex outside of marriage, including those involved in same-sex relationships.
Along with casting BYU as a haven for bigotry, the three journalists had no ethical qualms about inserting their opinion in all sorts of places in the story, bereft of authentic independent sources and frame it in an anti-BYU way. And to top that off, there is a huge gaping hole in the story that misses any discussion of both the legal and cultural place of faith-based colleges in higher education
Furthermore, there is no evidence that the reporters ventured to see what other external agencies which accredit, govern or monitor BYU and other faith-based schools have done. That’s a vital part of the story. BYU’s housing, business school, law school and other schools and departments across campus have been under intense scrutiny for these very issues.
What the article does get right is the fact that BYU enjoys an exemption based on Title IX federal policy. It’s true, that football teams and conferences probably have a choice about whether they ask BYU to join a conference or play games with the school, but the way the journalists framed the story fails to recognize any role for faith-based institutions in higher education. Save for the call that BYU “discriminates,” the story contains no sourcing from experts who work at with First Amendment constitutional issues or at the NCAA Inclusion Initiative, ground zero for these kind of discussions in college athletics. It mentions the NCAA inclusion office in way to suggest it’s taking a blind eye to BYU, but there’s no evidence the office was ever contacted for the story.
Furthermore, while the article mentioned a visit by the NCAA inclusion office to BYU in 2017, it failed to mention the school’s unusual efforts to take part and even host LGBTQ athletes on its Provo campus in national NCAA “Common Ground” discussions. The headline for the national NCAA magazine, Champion, tells the story: “An NCAA dialogue about LGBT inclusion and religion found an unlikely host: BYU. Why athletic leaders and student-athletes traveled to a school at the heart of the struggle to find Common Ground.” (Here’s a lengthy article about the November 2018 meeting).
These NCAA Common Ground meetings, held each year, are meant to build bridges between religious institutions and LGTBQ athletes and go to the heart of resolving the very issues the USU journalists raise. The recent article quotes sources suggesting there ought to be a national discussion about these inclusion issues. Rather than taking a blind eye, the NCAA, BYU, other faith-based schools and LGTBQ athletes are already part of a robust discussion. And like so many other issues in this story, the story shows lack of thorough research, or perhaps worse, an unintended or intended bias to “get” BYU
It’s not an easy road to work on common ground that accommodates different views in a pluralistic society. Good journalism should model respect for all and a springboard for these tough discussions. Unfortunately, too many believe that only granting LGBT rights while ignoring deeply held religious beliefs means that those who hold such “bigoted” religious beliefs be banned from the public square, and, in this case, college athletics. It’s proposing a zero-sum game where many faith-based institutions lose. In this case, these USU journalists seem to not only want BYU to lose at football, but for it to become a pariah in higher education.
Note: The editors, news directors, writers and publishers of the USU articles will be provided with a copy of this opinion column and asked to respond. If they choose to, their responses will be published in a future column.
Joel Campbell is an associate professor of journalism at BYU and holds a religious freedom certificate from the Religious Freedom Center in Washington, D.C. (formerly part of the Newseum). He does not speak for BYU or any other organization. This column reflects only his opinion and should not be construed as a news report.