We'll have a Red (or a Blue) Christmas news story

Blue_christmas_1That sound you hear out in newsrooms is the "thunk" of digital memos hitting the computer in-boxes of unlucky general-assignment reporters at small- and middle-sized newspapers across America.

The sad reality is that there are many, many newspapers in this fair land that do not have trained, committed, religion-beat specialists. You know, the kind of professional religion scribe who can handle the pressure — year after year — of finding creative news-feature-story hooks for all of those ultra-familiar religious holidays that terrify city-desk editors.

If you don’t have a Godbeat specialist, who are you going to call?

Only those of us who have to carry this heavy burden know how bad this can be. I mean, in addition to finding a good story, you also need page-one worthy color art and it has to be shot days in advance so it can be worked into the page design. How do you photograph a natural-looking, newsworthy piece of Easter art at the start of Holy Week?

But I digress.

OK, so you have survived Hanukkah. Good job.

Now is the time when an assistant city editor is going to scan the room, trying to decide which unlucky general-assignment reporter is going to have to handle — you know what.

You need a story that captures the spirit of Christmas, which means that it may need to have something to do with Christianity. But you also need a story that does not offend too many of the people who are almost always offended by, well, Christianity. You could do a news feature on how modern scholars believe that everything associated with Christmas is a myth, but you know that the newsweeklies are going to do that one every other year.

Right about now is the time when the editors send out these memos. A friend of this blog recently sent me a perfect example of one such assignment, which we will say was passed along by another friend. We can’t get into details, other than to say that it originated in a newsroom in one of the half dozen or so cities in North America that are, from time to time, referred to as the Mecca of Evangelical Christianity. Or the Vatican. Or Jerusalem on the Brazos. Whatever.

But the dreaded memo starts out by saying that the editors have assigned this reporter to write — you know what.

There’s more. The editor has already decided on the news hook for this as-yet-to-be-determined feature story. This reporter has been predestined by her or his editor to find a Christmas 2004 story that is connected to — you knew this was coming, didn’t you? — that hot, hot, hot social group of the moment. You got it. It’s going to be Christmas with the Evangelical value voters.

I can see the headline now: "America’s Dreaming of a Red Christmas." Or, you could flip that around and deal with the grief of the losers. This would, obviously, lead straight to The King (that would be Elvis) and "(I’ll Have a) Blue Christmas."

So good people out there who give us feedback here at GetReligion — let’s come to the aid of this anonymous reporter. I mean, let’s give him or her some help other than pointing toward the December holiday files of the Religion Newswriters Association.

I hope that some of you will answer these questions:

* Can you think of a genuine value-voter Christmas story for 2004?

* What is the absolutely worst value-voter, red-Christmas story hook that you can think of?

* Have you already seen a story written along these lines?

Please help. It’s the time of year for sharing. Help a general-assignment reporter, today.

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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.

  • Brad Roberts

    You could talk about strange rituals, such as services near the witching hour on Christmas eve, that are similar to services from the ancient times that pagans thought involved the drinking of actual human blood.

    You know, kind of a Nightmare Before Christmas hook.


  • Brad Roberts

    Ok, a real answer. I happen to have in-laws who are not religious and my own family is Christian, so I could see an interesting story on the varying traditions between the 2.

    You could discuss:

    *Differences in traditions between believers and non-believers who celebrate Christmas

    *Differences in traditions by denomination or geography

    I know the Cantata/midnight service (which was, of course, referenced in my first post) was a novelty to those non-believing inlaws before I came along, so something around that could be interesting.

    That isn’t explicitly evangelical, though, of course.


  • tmatt

    “You could talk about strange rituals, such as services near the witching hour on Christmas eve, that are similar to services from the ancient times that pagans thought involved the drinking of actual human blood.”

    I think that’s the Time and Newsweek angle for next year.

    It’s good for rack sales in bookstores — in blue zip codes.

  • http://spiritualprogress.typepad.com/not_perfection not perfection

    Stories I’d like to read:

    1. The shifting revenue sources of the Salvation Army; impact of the Target exclusion.

    2. “Blue” people acting “Red,” i.e., doing the hard work of helping those most in need.

    3. Christmas worship, customs, and travails of the Christian communities in Iraq (or Syria, or Egypt).

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    The Salvation story is a given and many of us will be writing variations on that. The angle to fascinates me, and I will probably write it once the Christmas fallout is past, is the impact of this controversy on the SA’s ongoing struggle to keep its Christian identity intact. It may actually help with that, re-establishing some connections to other groups.

    Remember that we are looking for LOCAL stories. That’s what you hand off to general-assignment people.

  • http://www.presbyweb.com Hans Cornelder

    1. Find a conservative congregation that promotes “alternative Christmas giving” where (a part of) the money usually spent on a recipient takes the form of a gift to a ministry in his/her honor, at his/her request.

    2. Find evangelicals who stay out of debt so they can donate more to ministries. Find people who give 10 percent or more of their income year around.

    3. Find well-educated, thinking evangelicals who used to not believe in the supernatural aspects of the Bible and the Christmas story but have changed their minds.

    4. Tell the story of a family that cannot be together for Christmas because children are missionaries at the other end of the world, ministering to AIDS orphans.

    5. Tell about the Angel Tree program for children of inmates many conservative churches are involved with.

    6. Interview a few people about what difference their born-again experience has made for them.

    7. Make people aware that there are many “red” people in “blue” denominations, and let them tell what they see as the difference between them.

    8. Ask pastors of conservative congregations for names of people whose stories they think should be told.

    9. Interview a “red” and a “blue” pastor about what they see as the essence of Christmas, and why and in what way they disagree with each other.

  • Molly

    Check out this web site. This is an ongoing ministry in Albequerque, NM begun by a woman whose husband was incarcerated. She started Wings as a way to keep families together and connected with the church. I don’t know if this meets the criteria or not, but I always think of this ministry as a tangible way to fulfill Jesus’ commands to love one another.


  • Greg Popcak

    How about a story where the ghost of values past, present, and future show a blue-state Scrooge the error of his ways.

    In the end, our latter-day Scrooge could “get religion.”

    I say put it in the toaster and see what pops up.

  • http://bunniediehl.worldmagblog.com Bunnie

    One problem with local and national religion reporting is that it tends to view two branches to American Protestantism — the mainstream left and the Christian right. In fact, both groups tend to be two sides of the same coin — they like a real public-activist God but just disagree about whether God wants to pass laws against homosexuality or outsourcing.

    In any case, the group that gets left out of this narrow way of reporting are confessional types. They may be Lutheran, Presbyterian or Reformed or otherwise, but they are neither mainstream not right.

    They are more creedal, liturgical and corporate in their worship and they focus more on everlasting life than the temporal.

    I think that Christmas time is a great time to explore these folks because they are actually the folks for whom Christmas as a holy day and season, part of a rigorous liturgical calendar preceded by Advent and followed by Epiphany, that really matters to them.

    They are more focused on the incarnation than those on the right and more focused on Christ as divine than those on the left.

    IN ANY CASE, maybe an exploration of how local confessional families deal with celebrating a time of penance in Advent up until Dec. 24 and begin celebrating the season of Christmas when everybody else is throwing out the Christmas tree.

  • WRY

    Hey, how ’bout:

    “Double-barreled Red Christmas” about evangelical Christians and the firearms they received for Christmas!

    (for worst assignment, of course)

  • Tim Alumb

    Santa Claus is strictly a red-state hero


    So it begins!

  • Patrick O’Hannigan

    This post ties in real well with the symposium Hugh Hewitt is currently hosting, on whether Newsweek’s religion coverage represents what some people would call a “teachable moment.”

    Further thoughts at my “Paragraph Farmer” blog: