Sunday, January 01, 2006

This just in: Heathen still rage

OK, copyeds, time to look ahead to the tournament and start polishing up those story-dissecting skills. Today's patient: The Religion Newswriters Association's list of the top religion stories of 2005.

It's fun to sit around and complain about how bad religion coverage is, but at some point we (that being journalism as a whole, but desk hands are included) really ought to do something about it. As things stand, we seem to be taking more away from the sum of human knowledge than we're adding to it. Hence a few general observations from the tale that can lead us to offer specific criticisms or, in the ideal world, to demand specific improvements:

1) Religion writers have trouble figuring out what a news story is.
2) Religion writers have trouble figuring out what a religion story is.
3) It doesn't matter how many times you say "faith-based groups" or talk about "faith and values" coverage; the faith page is still basically the church page.

Excerpts from the list, with annotations, as it appeared in one paper under the flag of the Religion News Service (you pays your money and you takes your choice, but agencies that provide ledes like "Millennia have passed since biblical times" aren't at much risk of overtaxing the brain):

1. The world mourns the death of Pope John Paul II.
2. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is elected to succeed him. He's now Pope Benedict XVI.
Erm, point one: "The world" is not coterminous with "the Roman Catholic Church." One of the basics of the craft is being able to convey the magnitude of a story without overextending it -- in this case, turning a major story into a universal. Point two (and we'll spend some time with this later), is this two stories or one story? Point three, even if you're reporting the most super-important story in the history of the free world, pay attention to your pronoun antecedence. When "he" directly follows "him," it really ought to refer to the same person.

4. Churches and faith-based agencies respond to Katrina and other hurricanes. Earlier, they responded to the tsunami in Asia, and, later, to the earthquake in Pakistan. The hurricanes also spur discussions about the role of God and environmental shortcomings in such disasters.
This gets us into the question of what is and what isn't a religion story. The philosophy here appears to be that you can make any event a "religion story" by putting "churches respond to..." in front of it, and that really means our distinction is no distinction at all (No. 5: Johnny Damon joins the Yankees as God continues to turn His face away from America). A collection of top religion stories needs to concentrate on stories unique to its domain or the ones on which it can shed a unique light.

What the "environmental shortcomings" have to do with religion is a mystery. If there had been any "discussions about the role of God" (I'm feeling kind of narrow-minded and OED-y today: "argument or debate with a view to elicit truth or establish a point"), as opposed to foamy-mouthed ranting, I suppose that might have been news, but I don't recall any. And the occasional revelation that people believe the same stuff they've always believed doesn't make a disaster story a religion story.

5. Debate over homosexuality continues to divide mainline denominations.
6. Debate on evolution vs. intelligent design intensifies.
16. Debate on stem-cell research continues in Congress and two-thirds of the state legislatures.
I'd be happier with these if the sidebar contained a scorecard on how to tell whether a debate is intensifying or merely continuing. I expect the writers don't really know, and that suggests that we could swap the verbs in these with no change in meaning, and that's a portent of a bad story as certain as frogs-n-locusts in the Power Doppler 8 forecast.

11. Withdrawal of Israel from the Gaza strip is hailed by varied faith-based groups as a major step to peace in the Middle East.
First, let's straighten out what we mean by "faith-based groups": Salvation Army? Luther League? Knights of Columbus? Then let's figure out why this is even a story (put it in the active -- various faith-based groups hail, etc. -- for a better idea of how weak it is).

The Gaza pullout was a big deal, no question. Whether it's a "major step to peace in the Middle East" is different, and distinctly more debatable, and generally the province of someone other than "varied faith-based groups." To return to the general points above, what we have here is either a big story that isn't a religion story or a religion story that's no story at all. Be wary of assuming, or letting your religion writer assume, that every story from the Middle East, let alone every Israeli-Palestinian story, is a religion story. That's not the case, and newspapers that suggest otherwise are misleading their readers and severely hindering their own ability to present the issue sensibly.

12. Some church leaders join in the call for immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. Report of Quaran-trashing by U.S. troops, later found inaccurate, spurs riots in Afghanistan. Hate crimes rise in Britain after terrorist bombings in London.
The flip side of problem 1 above. This isn't one story, it's three entirely unrelated ones. If you can't tell the difference, why should I trust your judgment on any other story? (Thanks for the interesting new transliteration of Quran, by the way -- had the copydesk been lulled into a false sense of security by this point?)

13. Canada approves same-sex marriages, an issue that flares across the United States.
The British move isn't a big deal, though? Even with Elton John? Should this be lumped in with the "debate over homosexuality," above, or would that mean it was intensifying rather than continuing?

14. California pastor Rick Warren takes spotlight with the continued appeal of his "The Purpose Driven Life," his attempts to combat AIDS in Africa, and the use of his book by Ashley Smith to help her escape from an accused killer in Atlanta.
Did I just spend too long in PTL-land? Or is this a gross overestimate of the importance of one more pulpit star?

Sounds like a lot of complaints with no concrete suggestions? Fine. Here's one. The Hamas movement (which, last we looked, was overtly religious) is likely to do pretty well in the upcoming Palestinian elections; how's the thinking on what a share in power might do to its ideology and practice? How about a folo on that piece in Terrorism and Political Violence a few months back on whether the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become Islamicized? (One sentence from the author's conclusion: "As in the case of Fatah, Islamization should be perceived more as a means of cushioning fundamentalist blows rather than a true change of heart.")

And since it's the time of year when Bethlehem is on the mind, how about another one from the neighborhood: The conference in Jordan on Islam and modern society. The Azhar folks, the Sistani folks and the Qaradawi folks hashing stuff out, and this doesn't rate as a religion story? Suppose maybe Rick Warren could take a hike? If, that is, you're interested in coverage of any religion whose last name isn't "church"?

Familiar sermon again before we pass the offering plate. Religion coverage is important. It's important enough to do well.


Anonymous Anonymous said...


11:29 PM, January 01, 2006  

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