Foot Soldiers in the Culture Wars?

by Anthony Hatcher

I first heard about the Susan G. Komen foundation / Planned Parenthood flap via email. A colleague sent a message to all faculty and staff at my university about the foundation's announcement that it would deny funding to organizations under government investigation. In this instance, he noted, House Republicans are looking into whether Planned Parenthood violated the law by using federal funds for abortions. The subject line of the email read, “So sad.”

On Facebook, my sister-in-law commented on the same news story using the same words: “So sad.” Komen backed away from its decision to bar Planned Parenthood from grants three days after a national backlash.

In another reversal related to women's health, President Obama tweaked a policy requiring religiously affiliated organizations, such as Roman Catholic hospitals, to provide free birth control through their healthcare plans to employees who request it.

Catholic bishops, Republican politicians and many evangelicals declared the Obama administration's stance a war on religion. Timothy Dolan, president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops said, “Never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience.”

After much rhetorical rending of garments, the president changed course, slightly. Instead of requiring religious employers to pay for contraception, the organizations' health insurance providers must directly provide those services to employees for free. That wasn't enough for Obama's official critics.

In the Washington Post's “On Faith” blog, Cathy Lynn Grossman wrote, “President Obama's effort to accommodate the Catholic Church by altering his administration's rule on birth control coverage has not appeased the church, congressional Republicans or GOP candidates trying to take his job next year.”

That's the response of public figures, but what about the public? Theologian Martin Marty, among others, noted that, “In most surveys that we have seen, about 98 percent of Catholic women of child-bearing age tell the poll-taker that they use contraceptive birth control devices and pills, whatever official church teaching and the bishops may say.” Who are these women? Why weren't they being sought in droves and interviewed by reporters?

NPR and a handful of other news outlets often interview “civilians” for such stories, as they've done in their coverage of how Catholics are split over the contraception provision.

When I was a reporter, one of my editors once said the newspaper needed to talk to more “real people.” His point was well taken. Experts in various fields and officials in government need to be interviewed for stories, but sometimes everyday folks should be heard too. Startling as this may sound, leaders are often out of step with their constituents.

How does one find a reliable source on the ground? Poynter.org managing editor Steve Myers has written about a social media tool to help reporters locate breaking news sources via Twitter. Journalists can also rely on the tried-and-true method of working the phone. Either way, it's worth the effort to seek non-officials (noncombatants?) whose perspectives can be useful for understanding a complex story.

Anthony Hatcher, a former newspaper journalist, is an associate professor of communications at Elon University in Elon, NC. His research focuses on religion and popular culture. He teaches a course at Elon in religion and media.

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