Sun-Sentinel finds some unity on faith, Schiavo

weddingday.jpgEarlier this week, I suggested that the South Florida Sun-Sentinel might want to take another shot at covering some of the religious views involved in the culture war over Terri Schiavo’s future. In particular, the newspaper needed to rethink its own assertion that there is some question about Roman Catholicism’s teachings on death by starvation.

Sure enough, the editors put veteran Godbeat scribe James Davis on the case.

This is a textbook case of a basic principle in religion-beat coverage (and good journalism in general). If you are dealing with a complicated legal story, then let the experienced legal affairs reporter get involved. If you don’t have one, hire one or get one of your reporters trained and up to speed. The same goes for medicine, politics, hip-hop, NASCAR, science, soccer, opera and other complicated subjects.

This is certainly true with religion news. A Florida newspaper has to have a Terri Schiavo coverage team right now and the religion reporter has to be on it. This is journalism and it’s happening in Holy Week (in the Western church)!

Thus, Davis produced a basic story rounding up the views of various faiths in the complicated religious turf called South Florida. The headline was simple but on target: “Different faiths find common ground in end-of-life issues.” In this case, the pro-life position can be found in a variety of sanctuaries, including those of Judaism, Buddhism and Islam.

Many in the ranks agree that the feeding and hydration tube keeping the brain-damaged woman alive should not have been withdrawn, South Florida leaders in those faiths said. . . . While acknowledging the legal battle on legislative and court levels, spiritual authorities say moral right and wrong are a different matter.

“Just because you have the power to make a decision, doesn’t mean you should,” said Imam Sayed Mohammad Jawad Al Qazwini, of Assadiq Islamic Educational Center, Boca Raton. “Even if [Schiavo] wanted to withdraw the tube, Islam would say she could not.

“We don’t have authority over our souls; only God does,” Al Qazwini said. “Death is just a transformation from this world to another world.”

The story underlines the fact that the MSM have emphasized the views of evangelical Protestants and traditional Roman Catholics. Still, Davis does quote the Vatican statement that links the church’s teachings directly to the Schiavo case.

However, Davis — correctly — stresses that there is quite a divide on this moral issue between the Catholic left and right. He quotes this rather personal story from Edward Sunshine, associate professor of theology at Barry University in Miami Shores:

. . . Individual Catholics make their own decisions — like Sunshine’s mother, who was dying of cancer in 1973.

“An intravenous tube was the only thing keeping her alive, and she said she couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “She had it removed and died in a couple of days.”

But what if patients, like Schiavo, have no power to speak for themselves? Simple, Sunshine said. “It’s the closest person. And unless proven otherwise, the spouse should be considered that person.”

The major point of view missing in this new story is that of evangelical Protestantism. However, the question facing a veteran reporter such as Davis is obvious: Which evangelical voice do you quote? There are so many to choose from and the viewpoints are quite diverse.

Perhaps that is the subject of the next story. At the national level, reporters can turn to a diverse group such as the National Association of Evangelicals. But what should a reporter do at the local level? What are the one or two essential evangelical, or dare we say “fundamentalist,” voices? Southern Baptists? Multicultural charismatic?

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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.

  • Charlie

    One of my long frustrations with coverage on religious/moral issues by my local paper (The Arizona Daily Star) is that the voices of “evangelical” Protestants are almost never heard. Reporters seem to have Rolodexes full of liberal Protestant ministers, Catholic bishops, and, increasingly, Imams, but Evangelicals never make it into the news. Unless they’ve been arrested for drunk driving.

    It’s one of the ways that religion coverage in small-town papers suffers. The reporter who is assigned the story gets lazy and goes back again and again to the same quotable men and women of the cloth, either not knowing or not caring that there are other points of view.

  • Kevin Jones

    I faced this problem as a religion beat reporter in Jackson Mississippi, and i found there was sufficient diversity of opinion to draw upon, or to comment upon when it didn’t exist, and compare it to national and global and historical norms or practices, even in a place that had as its core identity being parochial and an undying link to an imaginary and non existent past. I think the paucity of local voices issue is a a dodge. As Barbara Pymm accurately said often, in a villlage, you see it all, if your eyes are open.

  • Carl

    Frank Rich weighs in with his usual ‘subtlty,’ The God Racket, From DeMille to DeLay.

    Man, I don’t know why I keep reading Rich’s column. He has Krugman’s singlemindedness with Brook’s sweeping generalizations. His column has become more interesting to me as a printed version of Lewis Black than as a serious, New York Times writer. Oh well.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    While it seems that many faiths hold some unity on the issue of Schiavo’s feeding tube, a recent poll put out by CBS says that a majority of Evangelicals and conservatives “disapprove of the intervention by Congress and President Bush in the case of the Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman at the center of a national debate.” ( This makes it seem that while Evangelicals condemn the actions of the courts and Terri’s husband they don’t like the idea of Bush and congress stepping in to handle the matter.

  • Cathy

    The link you provided doesn’t seem to work and that is to bad I would like to see this survey. This is something all but the very extremes in this country might be able to agree on. And wouldn’t that be nice for a change…

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Cathy

    Thanks Jason! Very interesting reading.

  • Stephen A.

    Yeah, very interesting poll, Jason.

    So, let me get this straight: almost EVERYONE in the nation, religious or not, liberal or conservative, democrat and republican, are AGAINST putting the feeding tube back in and AGAINST any actions by politicians to make that happen?

    That defies common sense and the evidence of our senses.

    But if true, this tells me that the issue has been framed successfully by the pro-death crowd and the battle for “life” issues is over. Of course, it could be that these polls are worthless and are cleverly skewed to manufacture opinion.

    But if these polls are actually true, then the folks on the Left should stop beating up the pro-life people and GOP politicians for acting out of purely political motives, and start praising them for acting courageously and for principle rather than simply following the polls (and in fact, for going AGAINST the polls, if that’s the case.)

    You can’t have it both ways. Either they’re chasing the polls for political glory or they’re not.

  • Jason Pitzl-Waters

    “So, let me get this straight: almost EVERYONE in the nation, religious or not, liberal or conservative, democrat and republican, are AGAINST putting the feeding tube back in and AGAINST any actions by politicians to make that happen?”

    No. I think it is more a case that a majority of people are uncomfortable with the ramifications of a President and the Congress meddling with the judicial process this much (and that many people think that most of these politician’s commitment to “life” is tenuous and circumstancial at best).

    I think that the GOP *did* see this as an opportunity to show how “pro-life” they were (the memos prove that much at least) but it back-fired with a majority of Americans (Bush rushing to sign a bill in his PJs? Pure theatre.) many of whom rightfully doubt Bush’s pro-life credentials.

    I think this poll goes deeper than just Pro-Life/Pro-Euthanasia, I think it points to a growing distrust from all sides of politicians who place themselves on the moral high ground when they think if will raise their standing.

  • Stephen A.

    Actually, the pro-life politicians are being consistent here. They are consitently standing up for INNOCENT life and protecting life regardless of it’s “value” in others’ eyes.

    Just like the frail and sickly Pope, many don’t want to chuck Ms. Schaivo’s life away just because she is diminished, even if we ourselves wouldn’t want to live in that condition – an emotional opinion which is irrelevant to this discussion.

    And of course, the pro-choice folks are being consistent too in their view that life that is weak or mute is apparently optional and expendable. As I said before, those who advocate on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves (the unborn, the retarded, the severely disabled) should beware of this mindset.

    I do have to point out what no one else in the media has: that the vote total of Democrats who voted on the Schaivo bill was 47 for and 53 against. Pretty close. Guess there are some democrats out there who don’t tow the pro-choice line all the time.(

    I’m perplexed by the outrage being vented at the GOP’s actions by those who have no problem using the state and Federal courts to overturn the majority on social issues. Forcing recognition of gay marriages and, in the 70s, Federalizing the issue of abortion and taking it out of state’s hands are two huge examples.

    Now all we have to do is wait to see if Gov. Jeb Bush pulls an ATF and kidnaps Terri like Clinton’s goons kidnapped Elian Gonzalez. At least Terri wouldn’t be sent to a totalitarian hell-hole like Cuba, even if they have “free health care” in their prison camps.

  • James Davis

    I just re-read Terry’s post, a year later. Aside from gratitude at his kinds words about my article, I wanted to add a bit of background.

    When my editor and I were scanning the Schiavo coverage, we noted that two viewpoints seemed to command all the space: the evangelical Protestant, flat anti-euthanasia position, and the secular pull-the-tube attitude. What of other religions — not just Catholic, but Buddhist, Muslim etc.? Our discovery — that most of them shared the conservative viewpoint — became the structuring principle of the story.

    Terry does make a good point in saying there are several brands of evangelicalism, each with its own shade of opinion, so that no one speaks for all 60+ million of them. That makes for difficult coverage, but it’s worth the effort. If I had it to do again, I would have included that.