New battle in the old media-bias wars? #LoveWins #ReligiousLiberty

When the U.S. Supreme Court announced its 5-4 decision backing same-sex marriage, gay and straight journalists at The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., were in a celebratory mood, sharing hugs, laughter and tears.

Then online reader comments began arriving -- some calm, but others angry.

Opinion editor John Micek responded with this policy statement: "As a result of Friday's ruling, PennLive/The Patriot-News will no longer accept, nor will it print, op-eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage." His Twitter take, complete with a typo, added: "We would not print racist, sexist or anti-Semitc letters. To that, we add homophobic ones. Pretty simple."

Welcome to the latest battle over media bias, one linked to decades of debate about whether journalists do a fair and accurate job when covering news about religion, morality and culture.

The Patriot-News policy ignited another online firestorm and Micek soon tweaked it to say the newspaper will "very strictly limit op-Eds and letters to the editor in opposition to same-sex marriage" and "for a limited time, accept letters and op-Eds on the high court's decision and its legal merits."

The problem is that while some livid readers rushed to call Micek and his colleagues "fascists," others argued that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision would soon clash with the First Amendment's right to the "free exercise" of religious convictions.

Once again, Micek responded: "I fully recognize that there are people of good conscience and of goodwill who will disagree with Friday's high court ruling. They include philosophers and men and women of the cloth whose objections come from deeply held religious and moral convictions that are protected by the very same First Amendment that allowed me to stick my foot in my mouth on Friday."

Similar arguments were unfolding online nationwide because of a display of journalistic convictions at many news publications -- such as BuzzFeed, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, Variety and others -- where editors added gay-pride rainbows to their logos and even mastheads.

CNN raised the following question: "Did news outlets abandon their usual objectivity on this equal rights issue and, if so, is that defendable?" Narrator Brian Stelter worried aloud that his question might itself be offensive.

"If anything, the fact that I am gay has made me more critical of covering this story, because I am interested in knowing what the motivations are of people on every side," responded Chris Geidner, legal-affairs reporter for BuzzFeed. After studying the front-page coverage by elite newsrooms, he concluded that, "our editorial position in support of marriage equality and in support of LGBT rights is not much different from The New York Times and The Washington Post."

BuzzFeed editor Ben Smith was more blunt, telling The Politico: "We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides."

Smith's candor echoed that of former New York Times editor Bill Keller, who in 2011 stressed that his newsroom was shaped by an "urban" and "socially liberal" mindset that affected coverage of marriage and other religious issues. Asked if America's most influential newspaper slanted its coverage to the left, he said: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does." 

Again, this is not a new issue. However, Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute -- an influential journalism think tank -- stressed that journalists today must be especially careful in online forums, while avoiding public celebrations.

"When journalists use trending hashtags that carry an editorial message, it may undercut their intentions to appear to be fair, accurate and open to many sides of the story," he argued, in a essay. "A good measure for how to handle this would be whether you would use a hashtag or change your logo if the Court had decided differently. Would you use #HateWins or #LoveLoses? Would you have used the rainbow flag colors no matter what the decision?"

Caution is especially important when dealing with the "deeply held religious beliefs" of many readers, he added. "Whether you believe those beliefs are outdated or nonsensical should not shape your reporting when it comes to covering matters of faith. It is different than covering the political and social issues around same-sex marriage."