If they did cover the rallies, many media outlets "diminished the religious liberty concerns expressed by attendees."
"Some media outlets took to scare-quoting the terms 'religious freedom' and 'religious liberty,' to show how much they disputed these concerns," Hemingway told CNA.
She suggested that the news media can get "carried away" by "a desire to turn everything into a partisan fight."
While reports on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious pointed out "how helpful the LCWR had been to President Obama and Democratic supporters of Obamacare," very few accurately described the decades-old roots of the conflict between the conference and the Vatican, she said.
"They mischaracterized the actual words of the doctrinal assessment, stating wrongly that the Vatican had derided their social work," Hemingway continued. "One of my favorite media missteps was seeing a story about the Vatican crackdown accompanied by a picture of a bunch of habited nuns attending a Rick Santorum rally in Michigan."
She said stories on the controversy "routinely" used pictures of traditionally dressed religious sisters, while LCWR members often do not wear traditional garb.
Hemingway also saw problems in how the HHS mandate controversy has been covered as a battle about "access to contraception." This viewpoint "certainly matches the talking points of its supporters but doesn't accurately reflect the concerns of its opponents."
Misstatements of fact have also marred the coverage.
She said media outlets wrongly depicted a religious liberty hearing as a hearing on "birth control" and ignored the hearing's two female panelists "in favor of a narrative that no women were present." Other reports wrongly claimed that 98 percent of women take birth control.
"Since the media's primary job is to inform and accurately describe opposing positions, they're failing and that failure hurts civil discourse,"
She said the disparity in coverage is "striking" when compared to the "major media onslaught" after the Susan G. Komen for the Cure breast cancer foundation briefly withdrew grant opportunities from Planned Parenthood, or to the "heavy and high profile coverage" of Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, who supported the HHS mandate.
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Hemingway did find some good examples of media coverage, like St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter Tim Townsend's reporting on the local religious freedom rallies.
She also had some advice for how reporters can improve.
"I have no doubt that reporters have the best of intentions in covering these issues, but they need to expand their rolodexes to include better voices in their stories, redouble their efforts to frame stories fairly, put aside their partisan inclinations and reflexive defense of the Obama administration, and simply work to inform readers about what's going on," she said.
"Journalists can and must do better. And news consumers should be aware that the media aren't always informed or thoughtful in the way they handle religion news."
Kevin J. Jones is a senior staff writer with Catholic News Agency. He was a recipient of a 2014 Catholic Relief Services' Egan Journalism Fellowship.