How local press could have influenced the religious freedom law

This story has been updated .

After a horrible week for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce and threats of boycotts from across the country over a new law some thought could be used to discriminate against gays and lesbians, Gov. Mike Pence signed a new measure on Thursday that moved his state out of the limelight. The clarification specifically prohibits the state’s controversial new religious freedom law from being used to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

In rushing to fix what he labeled a “perception problem” created by the media, Pence tried to frame the national controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act he signed March 26 as a “smear” job from the press. Critics said the act, which bars the government from intruding on a person’s religious liberties, would allow businesses to refuse service to gay and lesbian customers.

“He kept talking about the Twitter storm and the liberal national media,” said Brian Howey, a journalist who runs an influential subscription-based politics site in Indiana. “But this thing spread across the state. This was across the spectrum and not limited to the national press at all.”

Indeed, both the national media and local press extensively—and sometimes sensationally—covered the possible impact of the law after it was passed. Once it got going, the Indiana media, led by the Indianapolis Star, gauged local reaction, talked to legal experts, and dissected the governor’s claim that law was just like one that exists at the federal level, an erroneous assertion he made repeatedly, including in a piece for the Wall Street Journal. The Star even published a frontpage editorial urging state leaders to fix the law.

They kind of followed the crowd rather than leading the crowd. I wish they would have done it a lot sooner when legislature was considering all this.

But the story was slow to get traction among the Indiana press until it was almost approved, meaning reporters were scrambling to cover backlash on a story happening on home territory. By the time the press did pick up on the story—and the opposition to the law—it was really too late to influence the debate or even to give readers and viewers a clear idea of what the law might do.

“What is disappointing in all of this is that they took this stance after all the business leaders and huge demonstrations,” said Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Star from 2003 to 2012 “They kind of followed the crowd rather than leading the crowd. I wish they would have done it a lot sooner when legislature was considering all this.”

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Star Publisher and President Karen Ferguson was not available to talk to Columbia Journalism Review when contacted last week, said one of her assistants, Katie Fink. Efforts to reach the current editor of the Star were also unsuccessful.

Jeff Taylor, executive editor for the Indianapolis Star, said this week that the paper published stories months before the law was signed.

“Our coverage intensified as the bill began to move through the General Assembly,” he said in a statement to CJR. “…Our journalists dug into the story and provided revelatory coverage and context that was essential to understanding what the law did and didn’t do. We also made a significant statement with our front-page editorial…and the law was ultimately revised.”

The bigger story of the legislative session in local outlets were cuts in education spending and Pence’s successful effort to remove the state’s school superintendent as head of the Board of Education.

When it came to the religious freedom bill, there are several reasons state outlets may have missed its importance initially. People assumed that the same political forces that stopped Indiana’s passage of a constitutional ban on gay marriage would also succeed in blocking passage of the religious freedom law, said John Krull, director of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College.

“There was coverage at the state level,” said Krull, who is also publisher of The Statehouse File, a news service run by the school that is one the state’s largest statehouse news sources. “It did not receive the level of coverage that education did. People didn’t understand the implications.”

And Tom Davies, statehouse reporter for the Associated Press in Indiana, said opponents of the religious freedom bill didn’t organize until after the bill had already passed both chambers of the Indiana legislature.

“There was some opposition, but it wasn’t until it was already nearing final approval,” he said. “That’s when it exploded nationally. There had been TV coverage on it, but the opposition against it was late-blooming.”

The story got bigger, too, after the governor went on national television to insist that the intent of the law was being misunderstood, and ended up igniting further backlash. On ABC’s This Week, on March 28, Pence repeatedly ducked questions about whether he thought gays and lesbians should be a protected class in Indiana.

“I appreciate the fact that he wants to throw all of the blame at the national media for calling attention to this and blaming Twitter, but every time he had a chance to throw gasoline on the fire he took it,” Krull said.

Dave Bangert, a columnist with the Lafayette Journal & Courier, said one of the problems with covering the proposed legislation was that no one knew exactly what it would do. “The law community could not agree whether this was discriminatory or not,” said Bangert, who wrote several columns before the legislation was signed into law.

Others said there just weren’t enough reporters on the story. The student reporters working for Statehouse File outnumbered the entire professional press corps at the capitol, Krull said.

Suzanne McBride, a former assistant managing editor at the Star, said this is a slow but persistent trend in statehouse coverage generally across the United States. When she was statehouse bureau chief for the Star in the mid-1990s, “you’d walk around this corridor and pretty much every office had a few people in it,” she said. When she went back to the Indianapolis capital to visit a few years ago, she recounted seeing empty space where reporters had once been.

“You need people who are experienced, who don’t jump in once a year,” said McBride, now an associate professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago. “You need people covering all year. That is increasingly not likely for most news organizations.”

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Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.