Saturday, October 22, 2005

Why do the heathen rage?

Or, to get to the real question: Why is religion coverage so godawful?

Really. Those who were watching back in the mid-'90s will recall a lot of head-scratching and garment-rending about the generally vile state of religion coverage in the U.S. press. Everybody promised to do something about it, and a decade on, religion coverage is -- well, godawful.

Here are some examples from a paper that prides itself on the time and space it devotes to religion coverage. Little of it is specific to the intersection of religion and journalism. Of greater concern, I'd say, is how many of the routinely stupid things journalism does happen to converge on this one little section. Listen and attend:

One of the area's richest church traditions returns Thursday with barbecue, politicians, charity and fellowship.
What's wrong with that? Not much, unless it strikes you as uncomfortably close to this lede from July: One of the nation's largest and most eclectic religious events returns to downtown Atlanta on Aug. 3-6. And unless that gets you to thinking about the untold scores of other times the same lede has appeared in recent years. Which could at least keep you from wondering why the writer's judgment of the relative richness of church traditions is of import here.

The latest Charlotte Observer/WCNC News Carolinas Poll confirms what we've known for as long as packed sanctuaries have graced the Carolinas. This is a region whose residents take religion seriously.
And what's wrong with that? For starters, again, perhaps not much, unless it should remind you of this lede from September 2001: The 2001 Carolinas Poll confirms what many believe about the Charlotte region: This is a faithful community.

But this isn't just a recycled lede. It's recycled nonsense. Such nonsense, indeed, that one could fairly conclude that more or less every word in the story is a lie -- down to and including a, an and the (as a less polite writer once put it). Full dissection of the tale follows if time permits, but meanwhile, have a look at the original file and see how many unsupported statements you can find presented as facts! (Here's a hint. Follow just a few links from the same page to find this statement from a Real Peer-Reviewed Journal: "Self-reported rates of religious attendance and practice may be significantly higher than actual rates.")

Again, keeping a running tally of statistical fabrications at least distracts the reader from wondering why the writer's belief that full churches "grace" a region is worth mentioning. Or why a paper that so relentlessly beats the diversity drum allows such patently divisive "we" and "you" judgments in its news reports. But we digress.

Are secular nations healthier?
Religion seems to lead to societal woes, says study in respected journal
The article is long, laced with academic terms and written for sociologists, but the message is clear: More religion seems to mean more troubles, not less, for nations and regions worldwide.
My, my, my. Where to start?
1) Never put a question hed on a story about an assertion.
2) If you insist on violating that rule, at least report the same assertion as the story. This isn't about "health." It's about a construct called "societal health," which isn't the same thing.
3) Don't make stuff up. "Seems to lead to societal woes" directly contradicts the study itself, which rather clearly says "The primary intent is to present basic correlations of the elemental
data. ... This is not an attempt to present a definitive study that establishes cause versus effect between religiosity, secularism and societal health." Emphasis added, and will continue to be until each of you writes "Correlation is not cause" 100 times on the blackboard. Get going.
4) Never extend a study (survey, experiment, content analysis, whatever) beyond what it studies. This isn't a study of "nations and regions worldwide." It's a study of data from "prosperous developed democracies," and that's the only pool of nations it says anything about.
5) The Religion News Service needs to get a grip. The article isn't particularly long by the standards of peer-reviewed journals, and length isn't a correlate of message clarity anyway. It isn't especially "laced with academic terms," unless you think "hypothesis" is an academic term. And there's no indication it's "written for sociologists." For more on this, skip to the next item, but first ...
6) When you have a link to the source article in question, do yourself a favor and read it. That's the best way to challenge repertorial cluelessness.

For three hours a day, every day for four years, young Asahn Kadeer has practiced memorizing the Quran, its curvy Arabic letters, dots and dashes dancing in his head.
Another case of Stranger in a Strange Land Syndrome from Religion News Service. Above, the writer invokes the length of an article to suggest that the land of social science (not the same thing as "sociology") is a pretty foreign place. Here, the writer conjures up a Disney's Aladdin vision of Arabic to imply the same thing about the world of Islam (for the long-range implications of this, start with Said's "Orientalism" and work your way north). A comparison of alphabets -- let's say Latin, Cyrillic and Arabic -- might suggest that they have several elements in common:
1) Curves!
2) Straight lines!
3) Dots!
Whence the dashes, G-d only knows. If the writer is thinking of the short-A vowel point, it's no more a "dash" than an accent aigu is.

Maybe religion coverage isn't uniquely plagued. Maybe all of journalism really is that dumb, all the time, about everything. But it's still nice to hold out hope that we can fix some of this.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've found myself, lately, giving the desk more hed than is typical. This is based soley on the amount of time spent reading the paper for enjoyment, which is very little. Certainly technology has played a role in eliminating the sixteen dek construction found in newspapers of old, but there's something to be said for that. Even many years ago, people wanted short bits of information to pull them into a story. Heds, deks, infoboxes: All are easier to read than 20-60 inches of text. Back to my original point, though, I dislike reading the paper because it takes me so damn long to figure out if I should invest my time in a particular story. More scannable items would make that easier. On the other side of the coin, I'm sure I miss good stories because of poor hed specs that force the actual removal of information. I'm not saying we should drag out the linotype machine or anything, just making a comparison between the so-called information revolution and the way information was presented 50 years ago. If we're going to survive, we have to give people a reason to read us. We have to make it easier to wade through the monster that is the daily paper. Plus, and this will make Freddo smile, more deks, pullouts, whatever make it simpler to say what the story's about and to throw that question mark in the trash.

[rant] I notice there aren't a lot of ongoing discussions here. Maybe you're all too busy "studying" at the 'Berg. Maybe you're shy. But I'd love to hear some opinions on this an other topics. Fred's put together a valuable tool here and it's being sorely underused. Get off your butts people. You're journalists and I know you have opinions--let's hear 'em. [/rant]

2:27 AM, October 23, 2005  
Blogger fev said...

We here at HEADSUP-L Central appreciate the vote of confidence and second the motion, rantwise: Pls feel free to dive in, launch topics, disagree with house editorial screeds, whatever. Tnx to all the folks who've already done just that, and pls consider your invitation perpetually open.

12:48 PM, October 27, 2005  

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