Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R). (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File) Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R). (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

In a news alert that hit e-mail inboxes at 7:54 p.m. Wednesday, The Washington Post apprised its readers: “Arizona governor vetoes controversial anti-gay bill.”

However, the headline of the current version of the news story available at washingtonpost.com takes a more neutral, explanatory approach to Arizona’s S.B. 1062: “Arizona governor vetoes bill on denying services to gays.” (Opinion articles have termed the bill “anti-gay.”)

So:

“Anti-gay bill” vs. “bill on denying services to gays.”

Or:

“Anti-gay bill” v. “Bill Viewed as Anti-Gay.”

What’s the diff here?

A survey of headline treatments across several news organizations turns up some level of disagreement. On the more cautious end of things are outlets including the Los Angeles Times (“Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoes divisive bill seen as anti-gay“); Fox News (“Arizona bill letting businesses deny service for religious reasons sparks heated debate”); the New York Times (“Bill Viewed as Anti-Gay Is Passed in Arizona”); Reuters (“Arizona governor vetoes bill widely criticized as anti-gay”) and the Associated Press (“Arizona religious bill that angered gays vetoed”).

Now for the plain-language crowd: NBC News (“Arizona Governor Jan Brewer Vetoes Anti-Gay Bill”); MSNBC (“Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoes anti-gay bill”) and the Huffington Post (“Jan Brewer Announces Veto Of Arizona Anti-Gay Bill SB 1062″).

Washington Post National Editor Cameron Barr tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “We don’t have a policy on the term, and in this case we’ve used it very sparingly because it’s a loose description of what the law did. Instead we’ve described the measure as one that allowed the denial of services.”

Ryan Grim, the Washington bureau chief for the Huffington Post, tells the Erik Wemple Blog that going with the “anti-gay” formulation didn’t require “a high-level editorial meeting. It’s objectively anti-gay, and our reporters and editors had no difficulty discerning that from the simple text of the bill and the statements of its backers. … This was the precise reasoning used to justify segregation, and today we don’t call it anything other than racism.”

The opposing view comes out of the Associated Press. After the Erik Wemple Blog told AP spokesman Paul Colford that we didn’t spot “anti-gay” in the wire service’s coverage, Colford wrote back, “I believe you’re right. I think we’ve refrained from using ‘anti-gay’ in covering this story. We prefer to be specific. For example, lawmaker John Smith believes only a man and woman should marry, but supports laws that make it illegal to discriminate against gay people. Or whatever the situation is.”

In Arizona, the situation is technical, at least on first glance. The text of S.B. 1062 doesn’t mention gays or lesbians. As these legal analyses explain, S.B. 1062 expands Arizona’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act by providing “a legal defense for individuals and businesses facing discrimination lawsuits if they can prove, somehow, that they acted on a sincerely held religious belief.”

Greg Scott, a spokesman for the pro-S.B. 1062 group Alliance Defending Freedom, decries a wave of “distortion” in the media coverage of the bill. “In a lot of the coverage,” says Scott, “the media wasn’t as curious as it should have been about what the bill actually did.” When asked about some outlets’ use of “anti-gay” to describe the legislation, Scott replied, “When you slap a label like that on a bill that has nothing to do with that, it’s meant to stoke emotion and really bury the chance for a reasoned debate about an important issue.” Nor have supporters of the legislation had “equal time” in media coverage, as have its opponents, says Scott.

New York Times Associate Managing Editor for Standards Philip B. Corbett applauds the description of the bill in today’s news story: “that would have given business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds.”

“Clear and informative,” says Corbett. So is “anti-gay.”

As discussed in many of the bill’s analyses, many different scenarios could be covered under S.B. 1062, including this one:

[Arizona Senate President Andy] Biggs prefers the example of a Catholic art gallery owner who refuses to put on display a painting of a crucifix immersed in urine. He said an argument could be made that being forced to display such a painting burdens the owner’s religious beliefs.

Yet if news outlets are going to highlight the bill’s potential impact on gays and lesbians, “anti-gay” is just a short conceptual walk away. The question of precisely how to short-hand S.B. 1062 isn’t merely an academic matter, as copycat bills are springing up in other states.

Editors at both the Washington Post and the New York Times say the term “anti-gay” is more appropriate for the situation in Uganda, where a measure allows for the incarceration of people convicted of engaging in homosexual acts.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.