2004 in review (I): God and the AP

Abu_scarecrowMore than two decades ago, my graduate advisers at the University of Illinois gave early approval to the idea of me writing my final project about the state of religion coverage in mainstream American newsrooms, which I also condensed for The Quill. One professor was skeptical, until I brought him a copy of the Associated Press’ top 10 stories for the previous year. At least six of the stories were linked to religion.

I have watched the AP’s end-of-the-year list closely ever since, and I can’t think of a year in which the number of stories containing major religion “ghosts” has fallen below four or five. I am not saying these stories were COVERED as religion stories. I am saying it would have really helped to have had a skilled religion reporter on the team covering each of these stories.

This year, as I stressed in my Scripps Howard column this week, it is hard to tell the difference between the AP’s list and the annual top 10 list from the Religion Newswriters Association. OK, maybe it’s not that hard. The release of “The Passion of the Christ” tied with the re-election of President Bush in the RNA poll. More details in a few days in part II of this end-of-the-year review.

Here is a GetReligion-annotated version of the AP’s list, with quotes from the wire story:

1. U.S. ELECTION: After vanquishing Howard Dean, John Edwards and other Democratic rivals, Kerry seemed to have a strong chance of ousting Bush. But the Massachusetts senator struggled to explain his stance on Iraq, underestimated the sting of negative ads and — in the end — narrowly lost the pivotal swing state of Ohio.

Comment: I seem to remember a few news stories on the toll of “values voters” and the role of moral and cultural issues, as well. Let’s call that a “freaking” ghost.

2: IRAQ: Throughout 2004, Iraq was a striking mix of bloody turmoil and tantalizing promise. Anti-American insurgents wreaked havoc with car bombings and videotaped beheadings of hostages.

Comment: I think this one speaks for itself. The entire drama of Iraq is haunted by religion and, more and more, the possible war between the Shiites and Sunnis.

3. FLORIDA HURRICANES: Four major hurricanes — Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne — devastated Florida and other southern states in August and September. … Not since 1886 had one state been hit by four hurricanes in one season.

Comment: For me this hits close to home. As I noted at the time, a major topic of discussion among Floridians the question: Why us?

4. ABU GHRAIB: Photographs came to light showing U.S. military guards at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad forcing naked Iraqi detainees to pose in humiliating positions. . . . (The) scandal fueled anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.

Comment: What can we say? Both GetReligion and The Revealer made the case that this story raised unavoidable religion questions.

5. SEPT. 11 REPORT: After painstaking research and dramatic public hearings, the commission formed to investigate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, issued its report.

Comment: Well? Anyone see any ghosts in Sept. 11 stories?

6: GAY MARRIAGE: From coast to coast, gay marriage was a volatile topic throughout the year. Massachusetts became the first state to have legal, same-sex weddings, and local officials in several places — including San Francisco and Portland, Ore. — also wed gay and lesbian couples before courts intervened. However, each time the issue reached the ballot — in 13 states in all — voters decisively approved constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

Comment: I have no idea which GetReligion post to link to, at this point, because there are so many.

7: ARAFAT DIES: For three decades, Yasser Arafat was a hero to most of his fellow Palestinians but considered unreliable — or worse — by leaders in the West and Israel.

Comment: Nope. No ghosts in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

8: REAGAN DIES: Alzheimer’s disease had kept Ronald Reagan out of the public eye for a decade. But when the nation’s 40th president died in June, at 93, Americans responded with an outpouring of affection and respect.

Comment: Simply stated, the Reagan era was the coming-out party for the religious right.

9: RUSSIAN SCHOOL SEIZURE: Even in a world grown all too accustomed to terrorism, the drama in the Russian town of Belsan was shocking because children were so clearly prime targets.

Comment: Seizure? The religious elements of this story really spooked the mainstream press. When fanatics preaching a warped version of Islam massacre “infidels” while screaming praises to Allah, is this a religion story?

10: MADRID BOMBINGS: Another stunning terrorist strike occurred in March, when 190 people were killed after bombs hidden in backpacks exploded on four commuter trains during Madrid’s morning rush hour. Soon after the attack, which was blamed on Islamic militants, angry voters unseated Spain’s pro-American conservative government.

Comment: See no. 9, only the religious elements were quieter in this case.

PERSONAL COMMENT: I am currently hiding in the mountains of North Carolina, in a place so remote that some of the public libraries still do not offer Internet access. Our only local cyber cafe — 20 minutes away — went out of business. We have no telephone here (cell or otherwise) and I am able to download email every day or two through the kindness of our friendly tobacco farmer next-door neighbor. Web work is out of the question. Special thanks to the maestro LeBlanc for posting this item for me, including nabbing some relevant URLs and art!

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.christianengineer.net Joe Carson, P.E.


    I suggest you write an open letter (i.e. post it to Get Religion) to Daniel Okrent, the NY Times Public Editor, detailing what specifically you would like to see the NY Times do to properly cover religion.

    He seems to think things are getting better at NY Times, but religion coverage does not appear to be on his radar screen.

    December 26, 2004


    First of All, There’s the Continuing Daily Miracle


    really hadn’t planned on doing this. Several weeks ago I decided that I’d write a year-end column enumerating a bunch of The Times’s crimes and misdemeanors over the past 12 months – the ones I never got around to writing about because they seemed of insufficient interest to support an entire column, or because they were replays of transgressions I had already addressed. Or because articles I’d clipped, notated and misplaced months ago suddenly showed up in my sock drawer.

    Then I read “Changing Senate Looks Much Better to Abortion Foes,” by Robin Toner (Dec. 2). This led me to decide that providing a catalog of sins would be churlish, not to mention unseasonable – and that a very different sort of column would not only be seasonable, but what I wanted to write.

    Toner’s piece was a straightforward report illuminating the potential effect of Republican election victories on forthcoming abortion-related legislation. Nestled in that sentence are three words that get right to the core of The Times’s mission: “straightforward,” “report” and “illuminating.” The piece wasn’t perfect. Toner at one point invoked the speculation of “many analysts,” and I have more tolerance for head lice than for faceless analysts, but her article did exactly what newspaper journalism is meant to do.

    It addressed an extremely contentious issue without betraying the writer’s own views. It avoided the euphemistic use of those specious and self-serving slogans “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and instead used “anti-abortion” and “abortion rights” to describe people who are, as it happens, against abortion or are supporters of abortion rights. It explained the nature of abortion-related legislation to be debated in the coming Congressional session, examined the strategies apt to be employed and weighed the likelihood of passage. People on each side of the issue were given a fair hearing. From reading Toner’s piece, I learned much about an important public issue.

    It was, in this regard, like many, many articles published in The Times every day. If public editors were assigned the responsibility of ferreting out the good work done here, The Times would need an army of them. I couldn’t even begin to list the paper’s major 2004 successes in this space, much less the daily accomplishments of so many. (Still, I can’t help mentioning three recent first-magnitude triumphs: Dexter Filkins’s gripping and intimate coverage of the battle of Falluja; C. J. Chivers’s horrifying account of the slaughter of innocents in Beslan; and Jonathan Franzen’s lapel-grabbing review of Alice Munro’s new collection of stories.) (Nor could I list the failures, but in just the last two weeks I was led to wonder why on earth the paper would publish a pointless and, to many readers, offensive article on a dog’s “bark mitzvah,” or a vaguely sourced, piling-on piece about Bernard Kerik’s love life, or why, on one day, the paper put four reporters – four! – on the story of an evicted bird.) (O.K.! Enough parentheses! Back to the point!)

    The point: beyond the continuing daily miracle of well-considered, well-executed articles, photographs and graphics on every subject under the sun (including, inevitably, a few subjects some of us might do without), The Times this year has done a number of things that affirm its bond with readers. One, I flatter myself to think, is that the editors haven’t yet padlocked my office door or given over this space to the Neediest Cases appeal. In fact, executive editor Bill Keller confirmed last week that when my term expires in May, the experiment of a public editorship will move a step closer to permanence with the appointment of a successor, probably to a term longer than my 18 months.

    But what the editors and writers and photographers have done themselves is, of course, what’s really important, some of it behind the scenes and some in plain sight on the page. For instance:

    The Op-Ed columnists for the first time operate under a formal corrections policy, and if you haven’t been seeing tons of corrections on the page, it may be for the best of reasons: judging by the shrinking volume of complaints I receive from readers, columnists’ errors have become much less frequent.

    The science desk has instituted a policy of full disclosure of potential conflicts of interest among individuals cited in articles. Execution hasn’t been perfect, but it’s getting there.

    Those damnable anonymous sources – or “anonymice,” in the term coined by my partner-in-whine, media hound Jack Shafer of Slate.com – haven’t begun to disappear in meaningful numbers, but at least they’ve begun to scurry toward the exits. Far fewer are being cited to support matters of small consequence. Additionally, the effort to explain why anonymity is granted to certain sources is accelerating, though I do think the rimshot “because of the sensitivity of the topic” is close to useless – especially when the real reason is “because the White House imposes a gag rule on staff” or “because the senator doesn’t want anyone in his office mentioned in the press except himself” or “because the board member wants to advance his own agenda without paying a price for it.”

    Recognizing that much of the country doesn’t look the way it may sometimes appear from West 43rd Street, the paper assigned reporter David D. Kirkpatrick to cover political and social conservatives. (I will not deny that there is a certain irony in what may seem an affirmative action effort aimed at the political right.) And I’m absolutely convinced that the national desk has been making a clear and increasingly effective effort to scrub stories for evidence of bias.

    Assistant managing editor Allan M. Siegal believes that communication with readers has improved: “I think desks and many individuals are less likely to disregard reader complaints, or to procrastinate in replying, because ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake.’ ” You’re welcome.

    In one small victory for a vocal readership (but a giant leap for the idea of responsiveness), the editors of the Book Review, actually heeding a chorus of complaints, will be dropping their recently instituted “Contributors” box next Sunday and returning writer ID’s to the place they belong – on the same page where the writer’s review appears.

    Many reporters, most notably those covering extremely sensitive beats, have engaged fruitfully with partisans and other critics. I especially want to single out Jerusalem bureau chief Steven Erlanger, whose every word is strip-searched for nuance and implication by thousands, but who yet shows a willingness to listen; his colleague Greg Myre; and most of the reporters in the Baghdad bureau, whose responsiveness to reader inquiries while they labor under frightening conditions is truly astonishing.

    The last development I’ll cite is still gestating, but potentially more important than all the others. At the instigation of Bill Keller and under the direction of Al Siegal, several working groups have begun to examine issues at the very heart of journalistic practice: how to improve communication between readers and the editors; whether and how to cut down on the use of anonymous sources and how to justify their use when it’s deemed unavoidable; how, in the words of one internal document, to create “a shield against bias”; and how to ensure accuracy.

    I can imagine a critic of The Times (or a critic of committees) blowing this off as a public relations dodge, or as a futile exercise doomed to a slow death-by-bureaucracy. But I can tell you that many of the paper’s finest and most honorable journalists are engaged in this effort, and the existence of various press reports about it (including, I hope, this one) mean that they are to a certain extent doing it in public. I’ve reprinted the memo that announced the committee’s formation on my Web journal (posting No. 40). Readers should expect results three or four months down the road; if you don’t see them, demand them.

    And let us all have a fair, accurate and responsive new year.

    The public editor serves as the readers’ representative. His opinions and conclusions are his own. His column appears at least twice monthly in this section.

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  • http://www.doxos.com Huw Raphael

    :-) Open invite…


    Orthros at 9

    Liturgy at 10

    PS: cyber cafes abound in Asheville.

    Happy New Year!